Documentaries too often function like a mirror image of the justly derided fotonovel. Just as those tie-ins were books pretending to be movies (using stills and a minimum of text), many docs these days do their best to approximate a book, filling the screen with information rather than compelling images. So the first striking thing about Only The Young, a non-fiction portrait of three California teens, is how flat-out gorgeous every frame looks. Directors Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims shoot these kids as if they were characters in an especially arty high-school melodrama, evoking the scuzzy-lyrical aesthetic of filmmakers from Larry Clark to Gus Van Sant. Brisk, impressionistic editing further heightens the sense that viewers are watching something that’s been carefully crafted rather than just dutifully recorded. Only the fact that everyone’s talking directly to the camera indicates that it’s unscripted.
Just as refreshing is the absence of a specific agenda. Only The Young follows best friends Kevin Conway and Garrison Saenz, skateboard punks who spend their days goofing off like any 16-year-old: roaming the local reservoir, dreaming about starting a club in an abandoned house, searching their closets for anything they might be able to use to create a Gandalf costume. At the outset, Saenz is dating Skye Elmore, who was also briefly involved with Conway; after they break up, Elmore continues to carry a torch, even as Saenz becomes involved with another girl. Conway enters a big skateboarding contest, but it doesn’t play as large a role in the movie as expected. Neither does the fact, noted almost in passing, that both boys are evangelical Christians—in one scene, they help preach to younger kids at skate parks (at a booth offering free tacos), and a few fleeting references to faith crop up thereafter (Saenz’s new girlfriend doesn’t believe, which is problematic), but it doesn’t define or pigeonhole them.
So what’s the movie about? Mostly, it’s just about spending quality time with three charismatic teenagers, observing their awkward romantic fumbling, witnessing their first inkling that these relationships may not be lifelong. Not much of real significance happens, which makes Only The Young feel a bit slight, even at a mere 70 minutes. At the same time, though, every hint of direct conflict threatens to break the spell, in part because the film’s secret subject is adolescent self-consciousness. So it’s probably best that Tippet and Mims err on the side of restraint. Imagine a gender-switched, non-fiction version of Ghost World, and that’ll give some idea of the delicate territory being worked here. It’s not so much a documentary as a gentle, probing character study, cherishable in direct proportion to how lightly it wears its ambition. It’s as evanescent and incomplete as childhood itself.