Film Review: Never Goin' Back

In her debut feature, writer-director Augustine Frizzel crafts a girl buddy movie with far too many male characters.
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Augustine Frizzell’s Never Goin’ Back is a summer movie, one that 30 years ago might have opened at a drive-in. Ironically for a female director, it begins with a definitive male gaze, the camera slinking up and down the bodies of its two female leads, Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone), a pair of waitresses who live in a Dallas suburb. For much of the movie, Frizzell does little to dissuade the audience that these two beautiful young women, whose sexual freedom makes them all the more alluring for some audiences, are anything more than objects of desire. Angela and Jessie share a bed. The girls’ sexual orientation is no secret to Jessie’s drug-dealing brother Dustin (Joel Allen); as for Brandon (Kyle Mooney), a renter, it fuels his sexual fantasies. All of the teenagers, including Jessie, a 17-year-old high-school dropout, inhabit a ramshackle house absent parents.

The film opens with Angela borrowing the girls’ share of the rent to book a trip to Galveston for Jessie’s upcoming birthday. To replace the money, the teenagers ask their boss for a week of double shifts. Even though they are frequently late, in part because of their cocaine habit, their good-natured manager Roderick (Marcus Mauldin) agrees to give them the overtime. Jessie and Angela, delightfully spirited, keep him entertained. The remainder of the movie is about the bumps in the road to Galveston, including the girls being arrested as a result of Dustin’s ill-conceived get-rich scheme.

Marking her feature debut, Frizzell’s direction is competent, but her screenplay, which is semi-autobiographical, is a series of vignettes that narrowly add up to a narrative. Scenes featuring Dustin and his fellow slackers are mind-numbing; in fact, the male characters, with the exception of Roderick, are so disconnected from the girls’ lives they are add-ons, seemingly borrowed from another movie. Musical interludes, mostly commentaries on the action, sometimes serve as a respite. The songs are hip, but the lyrics too often include the word “bitch,” adding to the overall impression that the writer-director is pandering to a male audience. One of Frizzell’s executive producers is her husband David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon), but her principal crew members are all women. Notable collaborators are director of photography Greta Zozula and production designer Olivia Peebles, both relative newcomers.

When Angela and Jessie end up in juvenile detention, Never Goin’ Back begins to resemble a girl buddy movie, one that is refreshing for its portrait of working-class teens. While Frizzell will never be accused of feminism, in the end Jessie and Angela represent characteristically laid-back, Millennial women who take their freedom, and their right to be who they are, as their birthright. Morrone and Mitchell give excellent performances, and the supporting cast is equally good, although Texas accents are not in evidence. In a particularly hilarious sequence, Angela and Jessie stop at a party on their way to work and accidentally eat cookies laced with marijuana. They arrive at the restaurant stoned and smelling of beer, only to confront their nemesis, “good girl” waitress Crystal (Atheena Frizzell), who sends them to the manager’s office.

Viewers who feel that Angela and Jessie are throwbacks to another era of teen films or are repackaged “dumb blondes” are mistaken: While it is true that much of the pair’s charm derives from their bubble-headed thinking, these teenagers do not evoke Hollywood past. When an old man at the supermarket criticizes Jessie for her revealing clothing, she is stunned and hurt. It is Angela who lashes out at him. While the scene is hyperbolic, the emotions these young women feel are authentic. Angela is the fierce maternal figure Jessie never had. And, if in the end the girls embrace a bit of petty thievery, it is payback for that assault and every other instance of ostensibly harmless harassment they endure from guys, including Brandon. Never Goin’ Back is mostly of the moment, but in Angela’s retaliation in the supermarket, Frizzell triumphs—there a sudden, stinging realization of the girls’ pasts, their emotional abandonment and disenfranchisement all too apparent.