In Only the Young, filmmakers Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims frame their teenage subjects in handsome, fixed-take compositions, often setting them off against the dusty background of the California ghost town where they live. Such aesthetic choices in documentaries are always dicey, substituting the directors’ supposedly more sophisticated gaze for one that might more accurately reflect the subjects’ sensibilities. It’s easy enough to say that Tippet and Mims’s finely wrought visualizations lock down the subjects in camera setups that mirror their lack of opportunities in life. Similarly, we can view the director’s framings as ennobling, as speaking to the on-screen figures’ higher aspirations, presenting them as objects worthy of being filmed with an artist’s eye.
However you look at it, though, there’s still a slight disconnect between subject and filmmaker that remains vaguely troubling, but Tippet and Mims compensate by otherwise letting the teenagers they film puzzle out their lives in their own terms in front of the camera. The trio of Garrison Saenz, Kevin Conway, and Skye Elmore are all reservoirs of youthful naiveté crossed with occasional bursts of surprising self-knowledge. (This last attribute is particularly the province of Skye.) Living out their uncertain high school years in a dusty corner of Los Angeles County, in which businesses such as golf courses have long been abandoned and reclaimed by nature, this trio negotiates their changing relationships with each other and with the few other denizens of the community we see. While Garrison and Kevin are lifelong friends whose relationship becomes strained, Garrison and Skye are romantic partners who break up but remain pals.
Each of the subjects have less than ideal home situations and, during the course of the film, two of the three principal figures have families that decide to move to Tennessee, thus threatening to uproot the kids from the only land they know. The theme here is the uncertainty of youth, supplemented in this case by the largely depressed economic circumstances of the region. But Tippet and Mims refuse to use their subjects as test cases for any sort of larger thesis, respecting these young people as individuals whose romantic entanglements and, in Kevin’s case, long-shot hopes for a career as a skateboarder, are treated with the same seriousness with which the kids themselves grasp the problems. Tellingly, the film, shot largely outdoors, almost never takes us into the district’s institutions (school, church), but we get a hint of the religiosity of the community and its baleful influence. Even here, though, the filmmakers withhold judgment. When teenage skateboarders who wear Minor Threat t-shirts express their love for Jesus, we might be surprised, but for these kids, it’s simply part of the culture they grew up in. Tippet and Mims’s achievement is to reveal that culture, subtly, achingly, by allowing those who grew up under its influence to live and narrate their lives in the only terms they know.