In Thembi Banks’ “Young. Wild. Free.,” a visually confident, shape-shifting yet sometimes wandering coming-of-age tale, nothing comes easy to Los Angeles teen Brandon. Carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders at home and school, he is on the final day of his employment when we first meet him in the back office of a grimy burger joint. As his unsympathetic boss fires him bluntly, with a side of mockery, we pick up that Brandon has been involved in an altercation, and is thus being shown the door. It’s a scene that Banks orchestrates with vibrant and stylish intrigue.
Tasteful, vivid colors permeate “Young. Wild. Free.,” as we learn in small doses that the aforementioned squabble wasn’t the first time Brandon (played by Algee Smith of “Detroit”) has got himself in trouble with someone, displaying anger management issues. People frequently refer to “an incident” in their conversations with him, never fully spelling out its details. He can deny there was one all he wants, but that’s what his school records show. To make matters worse, Brandon seems irreversibly behind on his studies despite the best efforts of his school’s resourceful counselor Mrs. McCleary (Tamala Jones). Perhaps the only person in the world who appreciates his artistic leanings and accomplished drawings, she preaches often that Black kids like Brandon don’t have the luxury to shrug off life’s responsibilities.
Still, one can’t blame the kid for not having it together elsewhere when he’s the one who keeps his household intact. Brandon looks after his two adorable young siblings with fatherly compassion and responsibly picks up after his messy yet hard-working single mom Janice (the great Sanaa Lathan), who drops the ball from time to time. There’s also a big sum of unpaid property taxes to worry about, which might cause the family to lose their inherited home in due course.
What changes everything is Cassidy (an alluring Sierra Capri), a textbook manic-pixie-dream-girl and a certified cinephile, both admirably free-spirited and careless to a fault. It’s not exactly a meet-cute between the two. Wearing a bedazzled ski-mask, Cassidy robs a deli that Brandon frequents, and inexplicably tracks him down later. He’s equally confused and exhilarated by this enigmatic young woman, clad in creatively layered, kaleidoscopic ensembles (courtesy of costume designer Neishea Lemle’s eye-popping edginess) and driving a fancy BMW convertible.
In the tradition of every mystical L.A. movie, where driving equals freedom and hustle-and-bustle resides next to deserted Lynchian hilltops and alleyways, the two get to know each other under the shadow of the Hollywood sign. Throughout, the script — jointly written by Tony Rettenmaier and “Creed II” scribe Juel Taylor — drops many (well, too many) a movie reference, sometimes out of narrative necessity and other times just for the sake of it. Everything from “Menace II Society” to “Dazed & Confused” to “All About Eve” gets namechecked and quoted, while one particular scene is set in the very diner where the “Reservoir Dogs” opening was once shot. (Feel free to chuckle at a smart dialogue exchange here, as the characters casually discuss Tarantino as an over-eager user of a particular slur in his scripts.)
These are among the best-crafted scenes of “Young. Wild. Free.,” marked by the kind of old-timey Hollywood sheen and grit once mostly reserved for the white characters of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Something Wild.” Ironically, they are also among the film’s most aimless. You might understandably get a little impatient waiting for something, anything to happen between the cagey Cassidy — who apparently lives with a well-off foster family — and the smitten Brandon as they become one with L.A., and he falls even further behind on his classes.
When the story’s chief conflict finally arrives — an unforeseen crime that involves Janice’s devious, drug-dealing ex (Mike Epps) — “Young. Wild. Free.” ultimately finds a destination for its bumpy ride, pitting the hot-headed Brandon against the better future he desires for himself and his family. Meanwhile, Cassidy’s unknowable presence becomes more exasperating with every passing minute. You wonder why she is so happy-go-lucky when everything’s falling apart, and why Brandon, who appears to know better most of the time, trusts her so completely.
“Young. Wild. Free.” has reserved an entirely unnecessary, even lazy twist up its sleeve as an answer to all these questions — a reveal too keen on the supposedly shocking endings of a certain kind of ’90s movie shortchanges more refined pleasures elsewhere. Also underbaked is the film’s unsteady handle on the notion of mental health, with an obscure ceiling fan motif annoyingly repeating whenever Brandon finds himself in the midst of a conflict. Surely the message — that mental healthcare shouldn’t be stigmatized for anyone, much less for over-burdened PoC teens and single moms — is a worthwhile one, but it gets somewhat lost in a crowded canvas.
Through luridly saturated, neo-noir-tinted cinematography and inspired needle drops, Banks demonstrates an atmospheric, unapologetically cinematic eye and ear, building on high-profile directing credits on TV shows like “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” “Insecure” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Too bad the writerly voice here is not as distinct, trying to say too many things at once.
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