Skateboarders Garrison and Kevin, and Garrison’s on-and-off girlfriend, Skye, are in many ways living the archetypical American teen life. Growing up in the small southern California town of Santa Clarita, they hang out, listen to punk music, change their hairstyles (and hair colors) and complain about living in a place with nothing to do. They explore friendship, discover first love (and heartbreak) and dream about the future. They are unconventional, perhaps, because they combine their Christian faith with American teen culture. They also show remarkable candor in front of the camera.
As beautifully and vividly captured in the new documentary Only the Young, something else is different–the America around them. Foreclosed homes, empty swimming pools, trashy underpasses and a closed mini golf course form much of the visual poetry of Garrison and Kevin’s daily skates around town. As high school graduation approaches, these signs of a nation in economic turmoil become dramatic realities that complicate the teens’ relationships and their hopes for the future.
Garrison and Kevin have been best friends since they were 13. The film opens with Garrison and his girlfriend, Skye, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling, speaking dreamily of life and love. All the elements for a romantic coming-of-age story are in place. As the two wrestle with the progress of their romance, trying to understand the difference between love and friendship, it comes out that Kevin and Skye, in a moment of “wasted” abandon, kissed. The revelation threatens the boys’ friendship. When Garrison and Skye later break up, both find new romantic interests.
While Skye says she is content to be friends with Garrison, she can’t help but disparage his new girlfriend, Kristen, for being “a hip-hop dancing crazy liberal,” which in turn brings a collective effort by church members to break up the young couple. Meanwhile, Kevin, the more alienated member of the trio, who sometimes engages in the practice of cutting his arms, competes in a skateboard competition offering a prize that would pay for college or trade school.
Only the Young vividly captures the tones and feelings of these milestones, evoking the poetry of youthful idylls, but also plumbing these kids’ particular experiences to reveal the grain. Garrison and Kevin reconcile their faith with cultural tastes typically seen as rebellious. As Shannon Hudson, Garrison and Kevin’s mentor and head of Ignition Skate Ministry, says at one of the group’s charity events, “We come out here to show the love of Jesus Christ though skateboarding. I know that’s kind of weird-sounding ’cause a lot of skateboarders are looked at as punks or outcasts and whatnot, and we kind of gladly accept that image.” For Garrison, Kevin and Skye, it doesn’t sound weird at all.
As in all good coming-of-age stories, the realities of adulthood begin to intrude on the exhilarating experiences of first love, early friendship and budding dreams. Garrison and especially Skye and Kevin begin to feel the consequences of the scenes of economic decline that surround them. Kevin is the first of the three to graduate, but his parents cannot possibly afford to send to him to college or trade school. The family decides to move to Tennessee with the hope that he will be able to afford further schooling there, which entails uprooting the 18-year-old at the precise moment when, as he says, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Skye faces challenges as well. She was lovingly raised by her grandparents, and just as she’s waiting for her father’s release from prison, she discovers that her mother is trying to re-enter her life by “friending” her on Facebook–a strange moment when new technology meets old wounds. Skye rebuffs her mother, but faces additional turmoil and an uncertain future due to her grandparents’ shaky finances. Throughout Only the Young, she has been the most resolute in her faith, and now it is sorely tested: “I had so much faith that everything was going to be okay,” she says, “and I’ve waited so long to have my dad back.”
Only the Young is a beautifully filmed portrait of contemporary American youth, combining the authenticity of documentary with the narrative pacing of fiction, accompanied by a soulful soundtrack featuring original songs by Nick Thorburn (The Unicorns). It suggests that youth will always be a font of profound personal and social questions and that teen life will always have a special place in American culture. But it also shows that the economic future that the young in today’s America face is more troubled than it has been for generations.