Young. Wild. Free. Review: A Powerhouse Coming-Of-Age Debut [Sundance]

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You know the story because you’ve seen it a thousand times: girl robs boy, girl finds boy thanks to the wallet she stole from him, girl dates boy. Actually, I don’t think anybody’s ever seen that before. Until now. Thembi L. Banks’ remarkably assured and hugely insightful debut film “Young. Wild. Free.” is a coming-of-age story wrapped in a boldly colorful romance that changes the game when it comes to the meet-cute.

The meet-cute has long been an essential device for establishing romances. The circumstances in which our two destined lovers meet can tell us a lot about what kind of story we’re about to get. For high-school senior Brandon (a brilliant Algee Smith), he’s about to get the surprise of his life. When at a convenience store, Cassidy (Sierra Capri) bursts through the door, and she’s ready to rob. She sticks her gun directly in Brandon’s face, takes his empty wallet — after raiding the cash register — and passionately kisses him. Later, Cassidy winds up at Brandon’s house. His wallet had his ID, so she’s come to get to know him better. That’s right, the romance at the heart of the coming-of-age story “Young. Wild. Free.” spawns from a stick-up.

Brandon is on course to graduate, but with unremarkable grades that means he’s not bound for college, and even if his grades were better, he doesn’t have the funds to make that happen anyway. His father has passed, and his mother works, but she has crippling mental health issues, and a toxic relationship with her ex-partner, the father of Brandon’s two young siblings. Brandon often finds himself in a fatherly role, taking care of his siblings when his mother is at work or otherwise unable. The film opens with Brandon being let go from work, but despite this newfound freedom, Brandon feels anything but: suffocated, trapped by the circumstances he was born into.

In Cassidy, Brandon finds a companion that personifies everything he wants to be — she is quite literally young, wild, and free. From the moment she bursts into the convenience store in a bejeweled ski mask (it’s as fantastic as it sounds), Brandon is drawn to her. Partly out of confusion — just what the hell is going on here? — and partly because of her astonishing confidence. She fires a gun before she speaks. “Is this really that surprising? I do have a ski mask on,” Cassidy quips with the confidence of someone who has everything they need in life.

Later, Cassidy asks Brandon why he didn’t flinch when she kissed him at the robbery, but the answer is clear: he’s instantly drawn to her flame, so why would he flinch?

Banks’ film beautifully places Black love and experiences front and center. Smith and Capri have incredible chemistry like they’ve known each other their whole lives, and it’s fantastic to see these kids live to the fullest — or at least try to, as there are some major roadblocks in their way. It’s a tricky film to classify as it weaves between multiple genres, but it’s always heartfelt, gorgeously shot, and authentic.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl Redefined

“Young. Wild. Free.” interrogates the manic pixie dream girl trope. For the uninitiated, that’s basically a character that exists to teach a man a valuable lesson or to teach him about himself. As Cassidy appears, it feels like she’s destined to be the latest trope. While we really get to know and understand Brandon intimately, there’s a considerable distance to Cassidy. That’s probably part of the appeal for Brandon — he’s got more than enough to deal with in his life, and one more person’s trauma would likely push him past the breaking point. But past Cassidy’s intoxicating love of freedom, most of us could only dream of lies an almost impenetrable distance.

One thing that’s clear about Cassidy besides her penchant for living life unapologetically on her own terms: she really loves movies. She’s constantly referencing everything from “Menace II Society” to “Pulp Fiction,” and Cassidy convinces Brandon to cut classes so they can go to a matinee of an old Hollywood flick starring Lena Horne. “Lena Horne was a bad b—-,” she tells Brandon, and on that Cassidy and I agree wholeheartedly.

As Cassidy reveals to Brandon in an elegantly framed conversation on a rooftop (how could you have a great teen movie without a rooftop scene?), movies are so important to her because they inspire her to live and dream bigger. She’s apprehensive about telling Brandon about this, but he gets it: “It’s what makes you tick,” he tells Cassidy. There’s been an uptick in films about the incredible power cinema has over people, and Banks’ film takes that idea in a new, creative direction, imbuing the power of cinema into a character.

Cinema is so hypnotic in its allure because of the way it informs our lives, whether we realize it or not. I’m always taken aback by the breadth of knowledge movies have bestowed upon me, particularly on a good night of trivia. Banks understands how movies inform us, dig into us, and live with us, processing this through Cassidy in a way that never feels preachy or self-important. I was once a teenager completely obsessed with movies, quoting them to people who had no idea what I was talking about. I could see a lot of myself in Cassidy — just, you know, without all the crime. But in understanding Cassidy’s passions and why she loves film so deeply, we’re able to get a peek behind the curtain, which disrupts the initial idea that Banks presents of the manic pixie dream girl.

That said, Cassidy is such an intriguing character, but it can be frustrating to watch her as there isn’t enough to her, especially since we get to know her counterpart Brandon so intimately. That doesn’t stop Sierra Capri from being a tremendous presence on screen. She exudes such warmth and raw, unbridled power that you can’t help but be swept up in the mystery of her character. When a film has such an unexpected and exciting set-up as “Young. Wild. Free.” does, its equally unexpected ending shouldn’t have caught me by surprise, but I was too busy being enchanted by the world Banks created that I was able to let my inhibitions go and ride with this coming-of-age story of young lovers. What’s thrilling is that by the time the credits roll, Banks has explored our pre-conceived notions of Cassidy, turning them upside-down in a refreshing, exhilarating fashion. Everything ends up making sense, and it feels foolish to have ever doubted Banks’ intentions.

Films like “Young. Wild. Free.” are why festivals like Sundance are so beloved. The festival is where so many impressive careers have blossomed from humble beginnings into major Hollywood juggernauts. “Young. Wild. Free.” delivers a touching, humorous, and constantly surprising story that has a lot to say about finding yourself, finding love, and finding what makes you want to keep getting up in the morning, ready for life’s next adventure.

The film isn’t without issues. Some characters are one-dimensional, and Cassidy, as exciting as she is, often feels like too much of an enigma. But despite “Young. Wild. Free.” treading in familiar territory, it feels wholly original, and this is a filmmaker with a valuable, needed message. Despite the struggles Brandon and Cassidy face, there’s so much joy at the root of “Young. Wild. Free.” and it really does live up to its title. It’s not perfect, but Banks has plenty of time to strive for perfection — if that’s something she even wants to do: perfection isn’t all that interesting.

Watch out world: a major new filmmaker has arrived.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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