Angst Is Their Co-Pilot

'Only the Young' charts the agony and ecstasy of a certain age

Elizabeth Mims
Elizabeth Mims (Photo by John Anderson)

Being more or less the only pedestrians, teenagers are highly visible in the landscape of Santa Clarita, Calif. It's something Elizabeth Mims noticed while going to film school at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Santa Clarita's fellow northwestern neighbor in the bedroom-community sprawl of Greater Los Angeles. Mims grew up in Central Austin and attended Austin High, so college was, somewhat bizarrely, her first prolonged exposure to suburban living. It seemed exotic: "The parents would commute to L.A., and they'd get stuck in traffic on the way home, so there's this gap when their kids would be off from school from around 4 to 7, or however late, just doing whatever they want."

Only the Young, which Mims co-directed with her CalArts classmate Jason Tippet, a Santa Clarita native, focuses on these afterschool hours of freedom. Far from an exposé about "latchkey kids" of the Facebook generation, Only the Young is a film about the sweet essence of youth: those waves of longing, boredom, and passion that are so acute in adolescence. "At that age you don't have responsibility, and you think you want it," she continues. "You're having all these awkward experiences. We've all been there."

Mims was there, metaphorically speaking, not so long ago; she is 24. I sat down with her at a coffee shop in Austin in January. She has moved back to town after spending the past year promoting Only the Young on the festival circuit. After being turned down by Sundance and SXSW, the no-budget film premiered at True/False in Columbia, MO., in early March. From there, it played many festivals – including Hot Docs in Toronto, Silverdocs in Maryland (where it won Best U.S. Feature), and AFI Fest in Los Angeles (where it won an audience award) – and was picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope before making its local premiere at the Austin Film Festival in October. Mims, who has been making movies with her friends since she was herself a teenager, is a second-generation filmmaker; her father is Steve Mims, who teaches film production in the University of Texas' Radio-Television-Film Department and through Austin FilmWorks. (His latest feature documentary, Incendiary: The Willingham Case, was released to critical acclaim in 2011.)

Mims and Tippet met their subjects accidentally, at a skate park in Santa Clarita, when Garrison Saenz, 17, and Kevin Conway, 16, approached them and asked if they'd lost keys to a Jaguar. Taken aback, the film-school students began interviewing the two skaters, eventually filming them as they headed to their hangouts in drainage ditches, abandoned shacks in the desert, and shuttered, overgrown mini-golf courses. The filmmakers' proximity in age to their subjects was crucial; it made it possible for the teens to trust the filmmakers and vice versa. While at CalArts, Mims had been teaching DIY filmmaking classes to high school students at an afterschool program in Los Angeles, so she knew how to encourage her subjects to express themselves and be natural in front of the camera. Mims says, "It was kind of like being around friends at a party. If they were showing off, you'd know." In one inadvertent bonding experience early in the shoot, the four of them were chased out of a tunnel by bees.

Garrison and Kevin have been inseparable since they were 13. Garrison's more popular with the girls, but Kevin's a better skater; in one of the documentary's meandering subplots, we see them take a chaperoned road trip to Arizona, where Kevin has been invited to skate in a Volcom competition. Instead of taking the opportunity to overdramatize Kevin's preparation for and performance in the contest, as any reality TV show would, Mims and Tippet concentrate on the car ride: the tourist traps they visit, their frustrated attempt to set up a tent at a camping ground.

Still from <i>Only the Young</i>
Still from Only the Young

The New York Times' Eric Hynes aptly likened the film to "a live-action Peanuts cartoon." Parents are largely invisible, and most of the action takes place outdoors. The boys both dress up as Gandalf for Halloween and roam the neighborhood, cracking themselves up. The filmmakers capture their wizardly revels in long shot, in the fading light of the afternoon; this "stranger's eye view" is unexpectedly poignant, reminding the viewer (if the viewer is no longer a teenager) of his or her emotional remove from youth, from a time when a fake beard was the only necessary ingredient for a five-star day. Sitting with his friend on a corrugated roof of an abandoned shack in the desert, Kevin remarks: "Garrison will be with me forever. He's like a fungus, like rust."

Certain details about the teens' lives are best revealed by the filmmakers' design, so I won't spoil them here, but it's safe to reveal that Only the Young is both a buddy film and a triangular love story. The third subject is Skye Elmore, 15, Garrison's sometime-girlfriend. Skye pines after Garrison, while Kevin remains coy about his feelings for Skye. Garrison, for his part, just wants to be friends with everybody. There's never a perfect equilibrium. While Kevin and Garrison act their age, Skye is wise – more mature, in fact, than many of the adults she knows. Frowning at her computer, she expresses discomfort with the cavalier way some grown-ups abuse social media: "It's still not okay to do personal things impersonally." Skye is precocious but never cute; her presence is calming, and she has a remarkable gift for keeping life's changes in perspective. Following a surge of renewed attention from Garrison, she shrugs and chalks it up to her new haircut.

The dynamics mainly play out in two-shot compositions, usually with both subjects facing the camera; it's an arrangement conducive to organic revelations of conflict and rapport. Mims and Tippet believe in using tripods and getting out of the way: no zooming, and as little hand-held shooting as possible. It was a style they developed at CalArts on their first collaboration, a short called "Thompson," which played Sundance in 2010 (and which will be an extra on the upcoming Oscilloscope DVD release).

Their foray into Sundance didn't make it any easier for them to find funding for their feature. They knew they wanted to do a microcosmic character study along the lines of Jennifer Venditti's Billy the Kid, but it was a hard sell; like Venditti's 15-year-old Billy P., Garrison, Kevin, and Skye had no claims to fame, nor were they poster children for a particularly unique subculture or "teen issue," making it hard to sum up the subjects in a sentence. "There's no one line, like 'an anorexic teenager goes through an emotional transition in her life' or whatever," Mims says.

Unburdened by free money, Mims and Tippet held onto their day jobs and worked on the film in their free time over the course of 18 months, editing as they went along. They launched a Kickstarter campaign in the postproduction phase to raise $22,000 for the music rights; the soundtrack is compiled almost entirely of songs from the Numero Group label's Eccentric Soul reissue series, including artists like Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr, and Stone Coal White. These gorgeous yet unfamiliar recordings are wonderfully evocative of the languor, heartbreak, and sense of fresh discovery in the high school years.

Now that she's back in Austin, Mims is continuing to teach filmmaking to teenagers through the city's Totally Cool, Totally Art program at the Dougherty Arts Center and working on a screenplay. Recalling the long road to Only the Young's release, she says the most nerve-racking screening was when she and Tippet showed the first cut to Kevin, Garrison, and Skye, who'd seen none of the footage until that point. "Jason and I were hiding behind the couch, like, 'Please don't hate it!'" she recalls. "They hadn't heard each other say these things [about each other]. But afterwards, it was amazing, because we all went to dinner and they said, 'I'm so glad this exists.'" Mims and Tippet make no claims of objectivity; rather, they admit they're fiercely protective of their subjects. "They have a really strong moral compass. It was impressive, even for me. I was like, wow, I need to be more mature about things." Though it comes unexpectedly, this is a lesson these young filmmakers, and their younger subjects, get across very well.

Only the Young opens at the Violet Crown Cinema on Friday, Feb. 22. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

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Only the Young, Elizabeth Mims, Jason Tippet, Garrison Saenz, Kevin Conway, Skye Elmore, Steve Mims

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