‘High school never ends’ was famously sung by pop-punk band Bowling for Soup. The song hypothesises that people never change or stray too far from their high-school cliques and habits they had as a teenager. Jovanka Vuckovic’s long-awaited feature debut Riot Girls has this same mentality, except in this alternate 1995, all the adults have died due to an apocalyptic virus known as ‘Black Gut Rot’. Now, the kids reign supreme.
Having separated themselves into the East and West side, these rag-tag teens have established a sense of hierarchal order and routine based off the only system they’ve ever navigated: high school. Poor, punk kids and outcasts on the East side and rich jocks and popular kids on the West Side, headed by the school’s football team, The Titans. But of course, Vuckovic’s concentration isn’t on those the world loved and revered, her focus is on the anarchic punks Nat (Madison Iseman) and Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski). Donned in leather jackets (the back of Nat’s says ‘Eat the Rich’), band t-shirts, spikes and eyeliner the pair are roused to action from their DIY studio apartment commune when Nat’s brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois giving a full Leo in Romeo and Juliet hair moment) is captured by the Titans trying to raid their van full of supplies. During this altercation Jack had picked up straggler Sony (Ajay Friese), who escapes the Titans grasp to join Nat and Scratch on their rescue mission.
Vuckovic presents a lived-in world, as Nat and Scratch navigate through their East side territory to cross the border into the West side, we see systems, protocols and carefully maintained social groups that are sophisticated way beyond the timeframe that her chosen story exists within. From a socio-political perspective this is such an interesting angle to explore (also recently explored in Netflix series The Society), but Vuckovic gives little explanation for how this social divide came into play. Granted, she’s just here for the fun and games of a comic-book style apocalyptic splatter fest but it would have been even more of a treat to understand the nature of the world Nat and Scratch live in; how have these kids managed to survive in a post-adult world?
One element that any audience member can quite easily grasp however is high school bullies. The titans are exactly the sort of stuck-up, slicked-back hair rich kids that picked on you in school and you never forgot about it. Heading up the group is Jeremy (Munro Chambers) who is channelling a 90s Billy from Stranger Things and Todd (Darren Eisnor) a martial arts aficionado that is teaching younger west-siders how to fight to gain access to the exclusive Titan’s group; letterman jacket included.
With the overall bright and sharp aesthetic the film clutches − with new scenes and characters introduced in a comic book style − it’s a wonderful clash with the pulpy b-movie nature of the violence that ensues when the groups clash. The death scenes are brutal and bloody fun that reminded me of the wonderful Turbo Kid (in which Munro Chambers starred as the titular character) in its love of nostalgia and splatter. It’s a clearly defined style that Vuckovic has a clear eye for detail in and easily slots into the new canon of 80s/90s nostalgia content the machine has been churning out as of late right down to each safety pin placed on a leather jacket and a soundtrack consisting of the likes of Joan Jett’s ‘Bad Reputation’ and other punk rock anthems.
While Riot Girls never takes itself too seriously its allegory of high school hierarchies and the divides in class and subcultural groups we experience as teenagers is universal, although displayed here on a heightened level. Vuckovic revels in displays of punk, anarchy and androgyny through a fun sci-fi splatter story that exacerbates the already extreme mindsets of teenagers where every small decision is life or death, except in the Riot Girls’ case, it is.
Riot Girls is out in Select Cinemas and VOD on September 13th
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here