If you plan on watching Riot Girls when it releases this week, put on your grungiest ripped up shirt and a spikes-bedazzled leather jacket, because this is by far the most punk-rock film of the year…
…But really, Riot Girls is true to its title, a rebellious film that feels like decades of angry youth all encapsulated into one small, eighty-minute movie that jams as hard as it crushes skulls. Making her feature debut is director Jovanka Vuckovic, who did my favorite segment of the all-female horror anthology, XX, “The Box”. With a script from Katherine Collins (Lost in Space TV series), Riot Girls takes place in an alternate 1995 where a strange disease has killed off all of the adults, leaving kids to fend for themselves. Two gangs have emerged in a small town, controlling the “East Side” and the “West Side”. On the East Side is a group of rock’em sock’em rebels, whereas the West Side is essentially a psychotic cult of rich kid jocks, who have kidnapped the rebel’s leader, Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois), leaving it to Nat (Madison Iseman) and Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski) to save him.
With Riot Girls, there’s a heavy dose of Lord of the Flies meets Trauma’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High, but with a budget and much less toxic drug use. Without any adults in the world, the kids rule a world which has become a teenage wasteland. Nat and Scratch both look like they’re straight out of a Joan Jett concert mosh-pit and I love it. Their clan, plus newcomer Sony (Ajay Friese) are all the types of people I hung out with in school. We got a lot of bad names, like “freaks” or “weirdos”, but to me, we were kids trying to find where we fit in, and it certainly wasn’t with the cruel bullies in school, represented in this film by the “Titans”. I instantly fell in love with Nat and Scratch, two characters who anyone that’s ever felt lost can identify with. And in this world, they are lost, left to fend for themselves against the elitist assholes running things. That being said, these women are warriors who you do not want to fuck with. In the realm of Riot Girls, they have to be.
That’s because on the other side of the tracks are the rich kid jocks, with a clan mostly run by clean-cut dudes donned in varsity jackets and sporting a football sized ego, including an excellent turn from Munro Chambers as Jeremy, the oldest kid in town and the sadistic leader of the Titans. Riot Girls is essentially the people I loved in high school versus those I hated. Jeremy and the Titans pretty clearly represent the worst of humanity, a bunch of spoiled, rapist, heartless brats who believe everyone else is beneath them. Collins’ script treats the Titans with a ton of originality, too. While the rebels don’t force rules on each other, the Titans have all sorts of rituals in place, such as handing out varsity jackets to newcomers like cult robes, or holding pep rallies for human sacrifice. I never liked Pep rallies, but Riot Girls really highlights the strange cult-like following demonstrated at these things, exaggerating every strange element of the high-school experience to an eleven.
Since a bunch of immature kids run things in Riot Girls, the film paints a sometimes hilarious, often chilling representation of what might happen in that case. We get a few fun moments like the show stealing Bacon (Joseph Curto), a smack talking kid that runs a chop shop, but outside of that, it’s pure, violent chaos. The Titans are like a bunch of incompetent cavemen, and Jeremy has managed to brainwash all of them, running the school where they all hang out like a fascist training camp. “We are Titans. We are Champions. Our motto is strength, power, respect”. This chant isn’t just the kind of motto that makes people like me want to gag, it’s the sort of propaganda that plays over loudspeakers, manipulating these kids. In high-school, a lot of us just wanted to be accepted, and Riot Girls demonstrates how easily misguided youth can be controlled when all we want to do is fit in.
With Riot Girls, Vuckovic cleverly touches on all of the issues we face growing up. A rebellious commentary on the pressures facing youth set to the tune of 80s punk rock, everything in this film has a life-ending intensity to it. That’s how it feels in high-school. Fitting in. Discovering our sexuality. Sex itself, consensual and sadly, in some cases, not. Vuckovic capitalizes on those anxieties and gives all of them life or death consequence in Riot Girls. Vuckovic gives us enough room to breathe since most of the film is treated with a tongue in cheek tone, rocking out with quirky transition-wipes and comic-book style location text, but make no mistake, this film takes itself seriously. All of these characters are kids, so it hurts to watch them die, even some of the bad ones, who are really just products of a sinister influence. This film is savage, and shockingly gory in some moments. But it’s also deeply satisfying. There are moments where it feels like Riot Girls is allowing us the catharsis of kicking the shit out of the Brock Turner’s of the world, and that’s a feeling I want to experience over and over again.
My big knock on the film is that Riot Girls has a great concept and some unique ideas, but the plot itself is just a tad weak. Mainly because there’s so little connection between the heroes and villains. The film gives you the sense that outsiders aren’t welcome in the Titan’s neighborhood, but there’s no meaty conflict between the two groups to start off with. We also see how this odd “gut rot” disease has changed things, but for a bunch of kids who will eventually face it when they get older, it doesn’t even seem like an afterthought in the film. It’s like an after-afterthought. The problem here being that Riot Girls creates a believable world, but is missing those extra elements that would make the dangers of this world feel more real and the situation more desperate.
Despite that, Riot Girls is a punch in the mouth that wakes up your inner rebel for a short but totally satisfying jam session that you won’t want to miss.
Riot Girls screams onto VOD through Cranked Up Films on September 13th.
By Matt Konopka