Jovanka Vuckovic’s Riot Girls is a progressive throwback
Jovanka Vuckovic’s lively feature debut Riot Girls is set in 1995 and seems to be a war between the ’90s aesthetic and the ’80s ethos. The heroes dress like the grunge army and listen to bands like L7; the villains wear varsity jackets and blare a hair-metal anthem called “Danger in the Air.” The mohawks versus the mullets. The Southside Serpents against Cobra Kai. Riot Girls is also post-apocalyptic, which makes this an alternate-history dystopia. A strange illness has eliminated all the adults, and only the teens are left. (We’re not briefed on whether the teens will expire at a certain age.) This effectively clears the board of baby boomers and many Gen-Xers— I was 25 in ’95 — and leaves the world in the hands of late-Gen-X and early millennials.
Really, though, all this just builds a world in which teens are in charge. It’s a premise, not the plot. Riot Girls focuses on two heroes: Nat (Madison Iseman) and Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski), girlfriends who live on the East Side of their emptied-out town of Potter’s Bluff (the evil jocks reign over the West Side). Nat’s cocky brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois) has a habit of disabling West Side vehicles and raiding them for whatever supplies he can find; during one such foray, he’s captured, and Nat and Scratch ride off to the rescue. The grrl-power vibe of the piece has already been so firmly established that the script-flipping of the girls saving the boy doesn’t feel gimmicky — it feels like a necessary rejoinder. Jack goes off by himself impetuously, not listening to any of the girls around him, and the girls have to put things right.
The resemblance of Riot Girls to Riverdale in terms of emphasis and style (for instance, Celiana Cárdenas’ colorful cinematography) is most likely accidental; Vuckovic, previously the editor of the Canadian horror-film magazine Rue Morgue, seems to look to genre favorites like Massacre at Central High and Return of the Living Dead (whose signature song, “Partytime” by 45 Grave, underscores one scene). The script, by Katherine Collins, kind of proceeds from one situation to the next — the pile-up of familiar complications feels perfunctory. But Iseman’s soulful vulnerability and Kwiatkowski’s tough-girl Joan Jett deadpan (under which, of course, a soft gooshy heart beats) compel our interest and affection. Ultimately, the movie emerges as a girl-girl romantic adventure, with realistic gore that perhaps only a Rue Morgue veteran would insist upon. (The dark blood drips and spatters maybe a shade too convincingly for this teen fantasia.)
I’ve seen Riot Girls dismissed as disappointing and slight, which shows the weight of anticipation that can bog down the reception of any female-centered work. My guess is that the movie is offered as the kind of low-budget mid-’90s Blockbuster rental that would’ve swum in the same waters as Hole’s Live Through This, Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Rafal Zielinski’s Fun, Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl, and Alex Sichel’s All Over Me. This movie would have fit in perfectly then, and may be at the spear’s tip of the inevitable ’90s nostalgia (when the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Friends takes over the media for a solid week, as it did recently, something is happening).
So Riot Girls is both retrograde and progressive, which fits this polarized time. Vuckovic’s direction is assured, steady and earthy; the images and sound have a pleasing solidity. We may question, after the fact, the sociological details of the milieu (has every town and city split into factions like Potter’s Bluff?), but in the moment we just accept it as the reality. The story only seems political insofar as it sees the same flaws (and strengths) continuing into the next generation. There’s a whiff of Lord of the Flies about it, as well as a passing fragrance of The Chocolate War. In brief, Riot Girls, if novelized, might turn up on school summer-reading lists (and promptly be protested by the usual bluenoses) — if not now, then certainly in 1995.