Riot Girls wears its influences on its sleeve: comic books, '80s teen movies, and punk rock. The film takes these things, puts them in a metaphorical blender, and comes up with something ambitious and cool, but also a bit lacking in one key area. Even if imperfect, enough about it works to be worth a look. Director Jovanka Vuckovic, in her full-length feature debut, is clearly on her way to big things.
The story takes place in an alternate mid-'90s universe in which all the adults have been killed by some sort of virus, leaving the young people to run society on their own. Punks Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski) and Nat (Madison Iseman) are from one side of a small town's tracks. They venture into the other side to rescue Nat's brother, who has been kidnapped by Jeremy (Munro Chambers, nicely channeling his inner William Zabka), the sadistic leader of a gang whose members are all jocks. Their presence kicks off a bloody series of events that causes several characters to develop important insights into themselves.
Riot Girls has a lot working in its favor. The performances are uniformly good, with Kwiatkowski and Iseman generating appealing chemistry. We sense there is more than friendship between Nat and Scratch; the actresses make that palpable. Chambers is a suitably intimidating villain, and Evan Marsh proves a scene-stealer as Devon, a “nice” Titan who feels pressured into proving to Jeremy that he can use violence to keep order.
Vuckovic demonstrates impressive visual style, occasionally transitioning between scenes by dividing the screen into comic book panels. Katherine Collins' screenplay, meanwhile, has a theme related to socioeconomic disparity that should ring a bell with the movie's target audience. As the Titans take up residence in a nice, comfortable high school, the punks are stuck in what appears to be an old warehouse and forced to scramble for basic supplies like batteries.
For all the stuff Riot Girls does well, it needs vastly increased world-building. We only get glimpses of how this parentless society operates. Showing considerably more of it – how the “rules” were established, how characters from different tribes view each other, what the day-to-day survival rituals are, addressing the issue of who runs the businesses that supply necessities, etc. – would have made the stakes seem higher for Scratch and Nat. With a running time of 75 minutes (without end credits), there certainly was room to expand on the concept of young people trying to keep society going in the absence of adults. This is a movie that needs to plunge us into this scene, rather than just providing little peeks.
I've seen Riot Girls twice; once during the Fantasia International Film Festival this past July, and once more recently in preparation for the review you're currently reading. Two viewings has made one thing clear – it deserves respect for taking on some big goals. When filmmakers put their hearts and souls into a picture and make a decent percentage of it work, not hitting the bullseye is okay.
Riot Girls should be seen and appreciated for the areas in which it thrives.
out of four
Riot Girls is unrated, but contains bloody violence and strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 21 minutes.