Genre films are always trapped in an internal struggle between going too far and not far enough; they are often equivalent to pulp novels, with over-the-top parables of classism, sexism, and cultish ceremonies running rampant. These larger-than-life stories can come off cheesy, but are meant to promote a belief or an idea where people cheer anytime the message is delivered, which can be quite gratifying. Working hard to build on characters, and their hopes, rather than everything they lost in the apocalypse, Jovanka Vuckovic’s Riot Girls strives to show how powerful relationships can be, and how they are important for survival.
Riot Girls opens up like a comic book, with scenes simulating panels and page swipes, with gutters and those little caption boxes. This initial choice tells the audience exactly what kind of movie they are going to experience, and according to the director, it was inspired by Tank Girl and other indie books. Luckily, Riot Girls does not disappoint in this regard, with classic hammy villains and gritty heroes, as well as memorable action scenes. Some opening exposition explains that all the adults have been wiped out by a mysterious plague, leaving the youth to survive and lead. In this small town, two sides reign: the East, and the West, which are divided by a bridge overlooking a river.
The Westside is occupied by The Titans, an army of preppy rich kids wearing letter jackets; their kingdom demands power, respect, and strength. They are uniformly dressed, like imperial troops, and their set of rules must be followed, or violators will face consequences. Meanwhile, the Eastside (who don’t have a name) are punks dressed grunge bands who live amidst ordered chaos. They are there to survive, and actually appreciate life in a deathly world. They too have rules, but they mostly boil down to “don’t be an idiot.” The action starts once one of their prime players, a blonde-haired, tough, pretty-boy named Zack gets kidnapped. The rest of a movie is jailbreak — spearheaded by two girls from Eastside named Nat and Scratch — where order faces off with chaos, and all hell breaks loose.
Like most road trips in the apocalypse, Nat and Scratch meet new and interesting people, see some exciting sights, and fight their way to the West. Beautiful autumn shots of a small Canadian suburb are ideal for this kind of movie; it’s devoid of towering apartment complexes, and the bare roadways make it truly feel like something out of Mad Max. The setting really makes Riot Girls‘ world atmospheric, and not only is this an ideal allegory for upcoming death (as is common in plague movies), but it also allows for the players to sport dapper and iconic coats, such as leather jackets, flannel, and letterman jackets that are the perfect allegory for coats of arms and identifiable armor.
As the two protagonists make their way to save Zack, they are naturally faced with roadblocks — some literal, and others metaphorical — like changing modes of transportation and deciding who they can trust along the way. The pacing during this stretch is absolutely amazing. Though at times it might seem like a leisurely stroll, Riot Girls never gets dull. It throws in a few action scenes along the way, but unlike the Mad Max franchise, which is full of rage and diesel, Riot Girls takes a much quieter approach, with adolescents and bike chains. This post-apocalyptic movie focuses more on growth and what can be, rather than decay and what once was.
Director Jovanka Vuckovic called this a queer movie, and in many ways it is. Nat and Scratch do show intimacy, but it’s never the focal point of the movie, never addressed as a plot point, nor is important for the plot to advance. In fact, you could easily change the genders, and the story would be very much the same. Her normalization of their love allows the audience to see how similar all relationships can be.
Similarly, this movie is very much a promoter of girl power. During the Q&A, the Vuckovic mentioned how too many times women in movies are either dumb, terrible, or both. She wanted to remedy that by making them people. Nat and Scratch are not only three-dimensional, but they actually pass the Bechdel test. They share stories, as well as talk about their ideas and fears. They plan the breakout together, and argue the best course of action. They fight together and cry together, especially when times get too tough. Admittedly, their prime objective is focused on a man, as their whole desire to enter the dragon’s den is to save the guy who was kidnapped, but it’s not entirely for love — more just to save one of their strongest players.
This is the kind of movie that knows exactly what kind of movie it needs to be. It’s not trying to be overly-bloody or overly sexualized; it’s not trying to promote a moral or push an agenda. It has its bloody moments, and scenery-chewing, but it’s ultimately a very human story, and this is what makes Riot Girls a powerful character piece. It covers a lot of ground, takes itself very seriously, all the while having fun with the script. With a fantastic young cast, this movie fits very well into the Fantasia crowd.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.