In an alternate version of 1995, a mysterious plague has wiped out all the adults and left one town’s teens in a violent gang war. This is the premise for Jovanka Vuckovic’s Riot Girls, a punk-infused teen-focused flick with surprisingly dark undertones.
In the film, the town of Potter’s Bluff is divided into the poor East side and the rich West side — punks vs preps, essentially — with each group rallying behind an alpha male. When the Westside Titans (clad in letter jackets and doused with school spirit) capture an Eastsider, it’s up to two punk rock riot girls — Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski; Bates Motel) and Nat (Madison Iseman; Annabelle Comes Home) — to swoop in, bash some skulls, and save the day.
Directed, written, edited, designed, and produced by women, the film puts a solid focus on its strong female characters. They’re all presented in a realistic and relatable light that the audience can really connect with. These girls have genuine friendships, fears, vulnerabilities, and strengths, and they can be heroic without the mystical skills of sci-fi kung fu.
Riot Girls is washed with a light, youthful energy that polishes over the film’s dark nature. For a film that focuses on a bunch of teenagers, there’s a fair amount of bloodshed. It’s a bit surprising to see kids straight up murdering each other, but there are no real consequences to deter them — no authorities to keep them in line. With the right “us vs them” attitude, you can see why these kids would believe that it’s the best solution to their current problem.
The issue with the “no real consequences” part is that death carries very little weight — these kids play pretty fast and loose with murder. When someone is killed, we move on almost immediately. Death has been normalized — though perhaps seeing all of your parents die from gut rot will do that to you. It takes away some dramatic edge, but it speaks to the true dystopian nature of the film.
That said, tonally, Riot Girls is a bit of a mess. It skips back and forth between heavy stakes and lighthearted adventure, and ends up feeling rather uneven. Because we’re picking up in the middle of the story with an already established set of warring societies, it can be difficult to connect to the reasons why this all matters.
But as flippant as the film can be with its treatment of death, Riot Girls handles the topic of sexual assault with the appropriate gravity. Scratch clearly has some trauma in her past that keeps her on edge. Her anxieties betray her carefree attitude when things start to get heavy.
On the West side, the Titans are led by Jeremy (Munro Chambers; Turbo Kid, Harpoon). Jeremy is coiled like a snake, ready to strike. His volatile nature gives Chambers a lot to play with, and he appears to relish in the stoic intensity. That said, the character of Jeremy perhaps isn’t the best fit for him. Chambers is extraordinarily talented, but the character is a bit too restrained when you really want to see him go off the rails.
Kwiatkowski really leans in to Scratch’s punk rock attitude, and it seems to come naturally for her. Perhaps it’s the script, but there are times that her performance doesn’t tonally match with the action. It forces a specific reaction from her that doesn’t quite gel with the overall tone, so the performance comes off as stilted — at no fault to the actor.
When Riot Girls isn’t rebel yelling or not giving a damn about reputations, it has a very sweet and queer-positive love story. Nat and Scratch show their close connection throughout the film, building up to a heartwarming confession that embraces the spirit of young love.
Riot Girls is a spunky and energetic film, infused with early-90s sensibilities. It focuses on teens who must survive with no parental help (the era of latchkey kids) and has a distinct comic book aesthetic that sprinkles a youthful unreality into the film.
Though there are some hiccups with pacing and tone, Riot Girls is a punk rock feminist call to arms. With a cast of strong female characters — including Caine (Jenny Raven) and wise-beyond-her-years Lucy (Jordana Blake) — it rallies rebel girls and shows us that we can kick ass in the face of male entitlement and classism, and emerge victorious. We are the heroes of our own stories, and we don’t need to be rescued.
Even in a post-apocalypse, we can claim the world as our own.
Riot Girls will receive a limited theatrical release starting September 13, 2019.