“Only the Young” is an observant documentary, although it’s very selective in what it observes. Newbie directors Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims follow three teenagers from Santa Clarita, California, and while aspects of their lives are carefully examined, other aspects are not. This was, according to a “New York Times” article by Eric Hynes, an intentional move on their part, for they wanted the teens to be the story rather than their circumstances or their personal issues. I’m not sure this was the best possible approach. Although I appreciate the subjects being authentically documented, people, teenagers especially, are indelibly marked by their life experiences; by ignoring specific events and people in the subjects’ lives, Tippet and Mims leave audiences with gaps they cannot possibly fill in – save for the select few that actually know the subjects personally.
The subjects are Garrison Saenz, Kevin Conway, and Skye Elmore, who, at the time of filming, were seventeen, sixteen, and fifteen respectively. It didn’t seem as if Tippet and Mims pressured any of them into saying or doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do; in fact, they speak and behave so naturally that processing them can at times be very difficult. This is actually one of the film’s strengths. No one can process teenagers, least of all teenagers themselves. They’re individuals in the process of becoming. We see such a process at work in this film, even though they repeatedly exude aloofness, disinterest, immaturity, ignorance, or some combination thereof. We watch as Saenz, Conway, and Elmore navigate relationships, crushes, and disappointments as they inch ever closer into adulthood.
The friendship between Saenz and Conway is largely revealed through their mutual love of skateboarding. This, in turn, reveals the city of Santa Clarita, a lifeless desert community full of abandoned structures spraypainted with graffiti and shrouded by natural overgrowth. They both realize they have nothing to do. When they work an odd job emptying a neighbor’s swimming pool of filthy water, there’s the sense that even the owner of the house realizes it’s pointless. We see Saenz accompany Conway on a trip to Arizona, where the latter enters a skateboarding competition but fails to place. We also see them halfheartedly dress as Gandalf for Halloween and pass out Bibles and free tacos to a group of kids as part of their church group. The youth pastor, whose congregation is founded on “skating for Jesus,” doesn’t preach with much conviction, and there’s no real indication that the kids getting their free tacos are listening to him.
The relationship between Saenz and Elmore is much more complex. The fact that their boyfriend/girlfriend status is at best on-again/off-again is only part of the reason why. Tippet and Mims devote much more time to her personal life. We learn that she was raised by her grandparents after her father was sent to jail. For most of her life, she believed her mother, a heroin addict, was dead; she doesn’t find out her mother is alive until she sends her a friend request on Facebook. Elmore is quite rightly offended by that particular method of communication. On top of all that, her grandfather’s house is in foreclosure; although they will have to move, they have no idea where to move to. Elmore, while certainly in the early stages of emotional development, is still far more open with her feelings than Saenz and Conway combined.
This isn’t to suggest that the boys don’t share their own relationship complexities, or that they can’t ever show their emotions. We can see that, at that point in their lives, they’re best friends that have a fraternal love for each other. After getting into a spat over kissing Elmore, Conway calls Saenz’s cell phone and leaves a message in the form of an apology. He doesn’t resort to pop psychology language (“I didn’t take your feelings into account...”), but then again, he doesn’t have to. Saenz understands his shorthand and knows that it’s heartfelt. We’re left to wonder about the current status of their relationship; at a certain point, Conway tells the filmmakers that he and his family will be moving to Tennessee after his high school graduation. I think we all know that not all friendships last. This is especially true of teenage friendships. Many simply fade away with time and distance.
We often see all three teens hanging out in an abandoned house nestled in a patch of overgrown grass. In spite of all the graffiti adorning the walls, they have turned into their personal hideaway. Perhaps they periodically need alone-time away from their families. We don’t know for sure, since Tippet and Mims intentionally keep a majority of the adults out of the film. This was, I believe, a miscalculation on their part; surely the parents of Saenz and Conway have in some way shaped the way they view the world. Why is it, for example, that Conway was compelled to make small cuts in his arm with a razor? We don’t see him performing the act, but he does show us his scars in one scene. Here’s yet another important issue the filmmakers chose to ignore. “Only the Young” is a good documentary, but it’s vision is often times too narrow for its own good.