Young Bodies Heal Quickly

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Gabriel Croft and Hale Lytle as Older and Younger
"The film, shot on 16mm by Sean Williams, gives the film a retro out-of-time feel and Betzer gives us room to think, the spartan scripting matched by a minimalistic approach to the music."

Lately, American indie directors are listening to the silence. In Blue Ruin, out this week in the UK, writer/director Jeffrey Saulnier turns it into a lonely, mournful space in which we can sympathise with his central character. Andrew T Betzer, meanwhile, transforms it into a dangerous void in his debut feature - a place where his two young protagonists ricochet around, damaged and damaging.

That the characters in Young Bodies Heal Quickly are referred to as simply Older and Younger is fitting, as these are the sort of boys who rarely introduce themselves or get called by name. The Older (Gabriel Croft) is around 20, adult in body but juvenile in brain, who responds to virtually every situation - even on the rare occasions he is trying to be pleasant - with aggression. The Younger (Hale Lytle), not even a teenager, stands in the shadow of his older brother, feeding off his bad vibe, trying to match up.

Copy picture

It is this communication through mimickry that sets trouble in motion for the pair as a day of 'fun' involving a BB gun and living target practice skids sickeningly into serious violence. Protected from the police by their mixed-message mother, she hands them cash, the keys to a car and a random collection of belongings in a dustbin bag and sends them on a road trip to various family members.

We follow them as they go first to their sister's, who shows signs of having escaped her family's all-too vicious circle, then on to their father's. This is less a trip down a road than a hopping from spike to spike. They meet others on the margins, as slowly the Younger begins to sense there may be something more to life than the path of the Older, while his brother continues to blaze as dangerously as a flare in the night.

Betzer is confident and capable and finds economical ways of showing the boys' dynamic, the Older's approach to life is summed up in a number of scenes with little dialogue, perhaps most notably as he bites off more than he can chew with a chilli pepper, lost for the language of attraction and trying to impress a girl (Hadewijch's Julie Sokolowski) with bravado. The younger, meanwhile, when left to deal with situations alone, makes some surprising choices.

The pair are put on a see-saw by Betzer, the Younger somehow rising, becoming more adult, more controlled, while the Older sinks towards the abyss. The decline is epitomised by loss of possessions, so that the Older could almost be a character in a Samuel Beckett play. First we see the handful of the belongings he has become depleted, before he is then relieved of his cash and car. "I think we're stuck," he tells the younger boy, without realising the extent of his predicament.

By keeping the scripting lean, Betzer doesn't over-burden his young cast and the choice of Australian Daniel P Jones to play the father, who comes with his own inability to express emotions consistently, is perfect. He is a figure they know on a basic level but also alien, and his hobbies of collecting Nazi memorabilia and attending Vietnam re-enactment days feel simultaneously stitched into the fabric of this part of America and downright bizarre. In his world, love is married to aggression and care-giving comes with a fight.

Betzer takes his time and lets things simmer, allowing the excellent performances from the more experienced Sokolowski and Kate Lyn Shiel - as the boys' sister - punctuate the narrative. Shiel, who has a nervous, edgy quality and who also made a strong mark in 2012's Sun Don't Shine is an actress in ascendancy and a name to watch.

The film is shot on 16mm by Sean Williams, which lends it a retro out-of-time feel. And Betzer gives us room to think, the spartan scripting matched by a minimalistic approach to the music, with just two tracks - one a mournful folk number - acting as a chorus to the action. We are invited to consider these little lost boys and reflect on how narrow the margin of hope can be when your upbringing is against you.

The film will be available on Fandor from February 27.

Reviewed on: 04 May 2014
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Young Bodies Heal Quickly packshot
Two boys go on the run after committing a crime.

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Tribeca 2014

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