With Young Bodies Heal Quickly, writer-director Andrew T. Betzer seems to be conjuring up some of the same perverted-youth vibes of a ’90s whatsit like Gummo, the on-screen brotherly duo of which represents a predecessor to the similar dynamic featured here between a clumsy roughneck played by Gabriel Croft and his impressionable sibling embodied by Hale Lytle. That these two taciturn ruffians are referred to merely as “Older” and “Younger” in the film’s credits hoists upon their laundry list of parental nightmares—walking on train tracks, leaping barbed wire fences, wielding pellet guns in public, crossing raging rapids, reversing into intersections—a potentially emblematic quality. Are we watching a pair of kids plucked selectively from the wilds of America or are we watching Kids These Days?
Suiting its self-consciously strange, decidedly non-commercial bent, Young Bodies Heal Quickly aims to function more as provocation than big statement, but its lack of dramatic specificity places it in a precarious middle ground between exacting character study and ethereal parable. Like so many road movies before it, the plot jerks into motion with a murder, the accidental result of just another day horsing around in rural Maryland. The older brother picks a fight with a pair of young female four-wheelers, and the younger brother, attempting to stop the violence, lands a wooden bat on the backside of one girl’s skull. It’s an arresting scene in its sense of ferocious randomness, captured with more deliberate handheld sloppiness from seasoned low-budget DP Sean Price Williams, but what follows quickly reorients the movie’s approach, shifting it from vérité to Bressonian remove. The investigator on the scene (Judson Rosebush) is revealed as the brothers’ stepfather, and the single glimpse of the family home yields a moment of portentous minimalism: “I know a way out,” he remarks ambiguously to his wife (Sandra L. Hale), thus triggering a parentally endorsed getaway that sends the boys out on the road with a wad of cash and seemingly no specified destination.
Its lack of dramatic specificity places it in a precarious middle ground between exacting character study and ethereal parable.
Police intervention is quickly ruled out as Betzer shows more interest in studying the boys’ stoic obliviousness to their own criminality at a string of increasingly bizarre coastal pit stops. Bolstering the film’s roster of NYC indie-scene staples, Kate Lyn Sheil makes a lackluster appearance as the matriarch of an interracial family who reluctantly take in the loose cannons for what amounts to a day of mounting unease. Further down the road, one-time Bruno Dumont model Julie Sokolowski steps in—seemingly from another, more surreal movie world—as a French expatriate fending off a psychotically possessive chef boyfriend (Alexandre Marouani) while working as a motel maid. Credibility is strained both in the details of these supporting characters’ lives and in the question of how they relate to the protagonists, points about which Betzer is committedly ambiguous and which a collection of substandard performances do little to clarify. If these encounters are meant to expose the brothers’ malformed notions of, respectively, family and sexuality, they’re too abstractly defined to provide any resonance.
Troubling matters further, Betzer’s prone to overdetermined directorial choices: a “Kill ’Em All” poster placed suggestively over the younger brother’s head in one shot, for instance, or a lyric like “no one to welcome me home” warbled over a lo-fi banjo line. That said, the turn his film takes in its final third is so bold as to obliterate any easy conclusions. The parents’ grand design comes into focus when their children arrive at the backwoods retreat of their estranged blood father (played with frightening physicality by Daniel P. Jones), a neo-Nazi and all-around reactionary in whose blinkered solitude Betzer locates both an eerie sense of denial and an unexpected compassion. Jones’s character participates in a redneck subculture of ’Nam role-play, a dress-up club that’s genuinely shocking to witness as pure anthropology, and there’s a sense in which Betzer’s tying this imperialist fantasy to the older brother’s reckless lack of self-awareness and accountability for the crimes he’s complicit in. It’s a behavioral-historical equivalence out of left field and it doesn’t work in any logical sense, but there’s something to be said for the sheer kahunas involved in taking such a gamble, especially for a film in desperate need for one of its provocations to make an impact.