“There’s no one to stop us,” says Kevin Conway, a gangly, spontaneous young skateboarder and one of the three central teens in Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s luminous coming-of-age documentary Only the Young.
Though Kevin’s words sound like a sweeping tagline for the state of adolescence, in a way he is speaking literally.
That is, if you were to spin around 360 degrees at any given spot in his hometown Canyon County, a recession-sacked suburb tucked somewhere in the California desert, chances are you won’t see a soul, let alone a grown-up.
Out on the vast and lifeless desert floor, where there really is no one to stop them, Kevin and his loopy, magnetic four-eyed counterpart Garrison have converted an abandoned house into a rough but charming little graffiti-strewn fort. This is where Mims and Tippet kick off the movie, the shack, like an old visitor’s center for the town itself, where being young and independent sort of comes with the territory.
Had Mark Twain been around for suburban sprawl and punk music, he might have found his Tom and Huck in these two skinny, wild-haired youths, whose own adventures involve wandering the wasted putt-putt links and scummy reservoirs of the town, laughing about nonsense and taking up rather questionable one-dollar dares. Time to time the boys will retreat to their sacred desert hideout, which they’ve outfitted with indoor skate ramps and a fully stocked pantry that’s padlocked to stave off rats.
“But rats are, like, smarter than you guys,” prods the pretty, red-haired Skye, the film’s third subject and Garrison’s girlfriend—well, sort of.
The two burn through relationship statuses just as quickly and arbitrarily as other teenagers. But the deep, effortless bond between Skye and Garrison—much like that between Garrison and Kevin—is a gift that transcends not just their age, but the hard, joyless landscape surrounding them.
I think it’s safe to say a lot of American teens would just as soon pull their own teeth than grow up in Canyon County, which is isolated from the crowded mega-malls and sloppy keg parties of a more typical suburb. But not Kevin, Garrison or Skye—their friendships are so whimsical and candid, they need nothing to do with their free time except to bloom, and Mims and Tippet lovingly convey this with shots of the kids shoving each other down empty roads on stray shopping carts, or tumbling down the moldy waterslides of foreclosed suburban villas.
Of course, being teenagers, their lives aren’t all fun and games, and the filmmakers capture even the most seemingly trivial problems with a fine sensitivity, from Garrison’s silly romantic dilemmas to Skye’s old, bitter tears over her jailed father and neglecting mother.
Yet one of the film’s greatest merits is that Mims and Tippet never take the young lives of their subjects’ more seriously than the youths do themselves.
The moodier moments are often undercut by shots of Kevin and Garrison on their skateboards, winding peacefully in slow motion down the hazy, sun-soaked ravines of their dead Western hometown. We feel the boys’ weightlessness, both physical and spiritual, in moments like this which altogether make Only the Young a wholehearted and successful tribute to adolescence—tender, buoyant, and often quite blissful.