Jovanka Vuckovic makes her feature film directly debut with Fantasia 2019 selection RIOT GIRLS. Vuckovic had worked as a visual effects artist in the early 2000s before transitioning to directing in the 2010s – mostly working on shorts.
With RIOT GIRLS, Vuckovic super-charges the narrative with a bombastic punk rock soundtrack that helps the already tight, frenetic pace of the story zip by even faster – even when the film literally stops halfway through to hit a bong and take a breather. The basic story is post-apocalyptic in nature. All the adults drop dead when a mysterious plague causes them to literally rot from the inside out. Left behind are all the children now left to run the world.
Since most of the kids are high schoolers, this new, fractured society is broken apart even more when class and social standing segregates the kids into two rival gangs – the Eastsiders and the Titans (the richer west side kids). The Eastsiders seemingly live in a much more communal, maybe even socialist way, working together and generally surviving by everyone doing whatever they can to make it. The Titans rule by the good ol’ “might makes right” ideas. They tend to be bullies and work in a hierarchy that seem to ostracize those who aren’t the popular types.
The movie mostly follow girlfriends Scratch and Nat from the east side as they try to rescue Nat’s brother, Jack, who is held captive at the Titans’ stronghold by their leader, and oldest kid remaining in town, Jeremy.
In all, RIOT GIRLS plays well with its material. Obviously, it has lots to say about class and status, and, to a certain degree, nationalism. However, on the surface, there are some tense scenes in which you see characters struggle with their place in a shitty situation. While watching the movie, I was reminded of a lot of things that mix so well into screenwriter Katherine Collins’ script – obviously there is a great deal of LORD OF THE FLIES here, but I was also digging how they introduced the world and the major characters with comic book panels and narration boxes (something that our heroes from the east side would likely identify with). I also was hit with a little nostalgia from the late 90s with movies like DISTURBING BEHAVIOR (I wish this was the movie we got instead).
Plus, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mentionthe entire idea of older generations dying and leaving the kids to inherit the world immediately got me thinking about the STAR TREK (TOS) episode “MIRI”. And then that got me thinking about what happens as these kids grow up? Will they also succumb to the same gut rot that killed the parents? Is the world of this movie essentially dead already?
Finally, as tightly directed and well shot and interestingly written RIOT GIRLS is, the gems of the movie come from Madison Iseman and Paloma Kwiatkowksi. Their Nat and Scratch (respectively) are engaging and they are great together as they have to find comfort in a really shitty world through each other.
As a fan of 90s style teen drama, post-apocalyptic sci-fi nihilism, and class dynamics playing itself out in odd power struggles, RIOT GIRLS was definitely a pleaser.