[Fantasia Festival 2019] Riot Girls is an Apocalyptic Blast

Welcome to Potter’s Bluff, a place where even the welcome sign has been tagged with “totally fucked.” Through comic book panes, we’re introduced to an alternate version of 1995, where a black gut wasting disease has killed all of the adults. What’s left of the town has devolved into pure anarchy, with the poor kids on the East Side of the bridge duking it out against the West Side, lead by the high school football team, The Titans.

The punks versus the jocks. It’s nice to know that even in the apocalypse, some things never change. 

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Our main characters are introduced through comic-styled intros. There’s Scratch (Paloma Kwiatowski), who we’re told was voted most likely to not give a fuck, as she’s skating down a deserted, destroyed and tagged streets of Potter’s Bluff. She and her best friend Nat (Madison Iseman)--loyal as hell, we’re also told--are scavenging supplies; medicine, tampons, batteries from a tossed vibrator. 

Meanwhile, in another part of town, Nat’s brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois) is on his way to jump a pair of Titans when he accidentally hits Sony (Ajay Friese) who’s also on the run from the Varsity-jacket wearing jocks. Feeling bad for hitting him, Jack brings Sony back to the punk’s hideout only to return to the van that night, in case there’s medicine hidden inside. Of course, he gets caught by the Titans. And it’s off to the races, with Scratch, Nat and Sony on their way to save him from the jocks, lead by Jeremy (Munro Chambers), the oldest kid in Potter’s Bluff.

Along the way, we learn about the social structure of the jocks’ dictatorship and how a town full of kids and teens are forced to make due under their fascist rule. Relationships blossom and deflate. Heads explode in bright red and style is the name of the game.

Written by Katherin Collins and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, Riot Girls is like suburban Mad Max with a touch of Riverdale. Assassination Nation, without the deep social commentary...but with plenty of badassery. It wears its inspirations on its sleeve, from the comic book stylings like comic book pane camera wipes and big blocky lettered transitions. It’s full of bold, primary colors and is stylish as hell, thanks in part to Celiana Cárdenas’ cinematography and a pulsing soundtrack by Peter Chapman, with occaisonal riot grrl embelishments like “Fast and Frightening” introing the movie and “Partytime” by 45 Grave. It even has a “Bad Reputation” car singalong.  

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The story is slight without much in the way of surprises, but it has a strong LGBTQ core and an appreciation for the outsiders. The authoritarian Titans continue to represent The Man…they even still hand out detention slips as punishment. The story is slight, the characters broadly drawn. The bad guys are scene-chewers, the good guys punk riot grrls. A cast full of exceptionally good-looking people. It’s an exercise in style, but it worked for me.

The main draw is Paloma Kwiatowski’s performance as Scratch, a young woman brimming with punk rock and queer ethos. She comes from a place of obvious pain, but does everything in her power to help her friends. The most surprising thing is not that there’s queer undertones but that they are undertones. So when certain revelations are made, it shocked me…not because of the revelations but because they were revelations…if that makes any sense.

It balances an odd tone of feeling like a bunch of kids playacting grownups. Riot Girls has an affectation of artifice that never feels completely real, mostly because it plays everything deadly serious when it’s ultimately about a group of rugrats and teens carrying the world on their shoulders. It’s like the self-seriousness of teen life personified as an epic war for the fate of Potter’s Bluff. But then there are moments of explosive violence that jolts because of the more playful, upbeat and staged plot. It’s a movie where faces can explode and kids’ throats can be slit, spraying the sun-drenched locations. But then a pep rally will break out in a 90s-style rap that could have been the Mortal Kombat theme in another time and place. 

What Riot Girls does best, though, is introduce a strong talent in director Jovanka Vuckovic, who comes from my favorite segment of the XX anthology (“The Box”) with an assured and bold feature film. It’s not perfect, but damn is it fun.