On the same day in New York, two differently lyrical documentaries about two different but equally non-famous trios of superficially ordinary young Americans open for theatrical runs. Tchoupitoulas, by Bill Ross IV and his brother Turner Ross, is set in the French District of New Orleans at night, and seen mostly through the eyes of three adolescent brothers from across the Mississippi who have missed the last ferry back. Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’s Only the Young is about three friends—two male skateboarders and a girl—in California’s Canyon Country north of Los Angeles. While two docs don’t constitute a renaissance, these fine, moving, intelligently uncynical works, taken together, reveal the state of the art as sound. Both are a testament to the evergreen value of sensitively captured and skillfully conveyed portraits of the small lives usually confined to those amateur animated photo albums we used to call “home movies.”
The Ross Brothers’ last film, 45365, followed sundry residents of their small hometown (Sidney, Ohio, near Dayton), more or less over the course of four seasons. Its conversational, exploitation-free good-naturedness was a result of the filmmakers’ one-of-us status with the Sidney citizens. Without forcing anything, they managed to make a microcosm of Sidney, with all of its small-scale intrigue, tragedy, and life-preserving self-deprecation. Tchoupitoulas (CHOP-it-TOO-luhs) shrinks that year down into one night. But though the three brothers’ adventure lasts from sundown to the next sunrise, Bill and Turner spent a full nine months shooting. Their keyword was “experiential.” They went to New Orleans, their “second home” growing up, armed with some standard-def digital cameras, to recapture some of the atmospheric PM essence they dimly recalled from their youth. It wasn’t until seven months in that they discovered the kids from the West Bank and decided to frame their urban mood-piece around the teenagers’ visit.
Tchoupitoulas opens with a voiceover by the youngest Zanders brother, William, recalling a dream in which he was a famous athlete turned lawyer. The rest of the movie is another dream—announcing it upfront like this excuses the directors’ looseness with the story’s timeframe. I don’t know if the kids’ trip to the tourist district really only happened once, and it doesn’t matter. The plentiful detours away from them—into burlesque club dressing rooms, a rap show, transvestite karaoke bars, stopping to watch buskers busk, homeless men argue, and city lights abstractly twinkle—may have occurred anytime during those nine months of unmapped, wide-to-receive shooting.
If the time of year invisibly varies, the Ross Brothers are careful that the night moves clearly into morning, evidenced by the changing sky color. The dead hours on Bourbon Street feel deader than most, contrasted with the overbearing liveliness of prime time, a melancholy that Tchoupitoulas palpably renders. Down for whatever, the cameras follow the Zanders when on a whim they sneak onto an abandoned, rundown riverboat, its possibly Katrina-ravaged innards a haunting series of empty ballrooms, mildewed cabins, and lit chandeliers. Where are their parents? A brother mentions: “Dad is in L.A.” When we’re briefly inside their house near the beginning before they have left, we see one older guy break up a sibling tiff, but when it comes time to call for a potential ride home after missing the ferry, the two older brothers only pretend to call, or so William suspects. Either way, nobody comes, so they and their unflagging dog Buttercup head off in search of more sensory input.
Only the Young
In a corner of the country far from New Orleans, friends Garrison, Kevin, and Skye are negotiating their waning high school years in Only the Young. They all have beds to sleep in somewhere near Santa Clarita, California, but the guys often prefer to squat in a ratty abandoned home they found, cleaning up yards and empty pools for pocket money. “My mom’s dead, my dad’s in prison and my parents are awesome—they’re my grandparents,” says Skye. During the course of the movie, she discovers she’s wrong on the first count when she receives an unexpected Facebook friend request from her long lost mother. She declines this unspeakably crass, heartless overture. She’s in young love with the aloof but charming (“dumb,” in her words) Garrison, who vaguely dumps her and starts dating a hip-hop-dancing “brainiac,” while remaining a friendly soul mate of Skye’s. Meanwhile, Garrison’s best friend Kevin kisses Skye at a party, which similarly fails to derail a close life bond.
What sounds like potential fodder for a backstreet The Hills arc or a third-rate Jules and Jim riff is instead, in Tippet and Mims’s capable hands, the stuff of timeless adolescent drama. The title and opening shot (“Everything that goes into your life never comes out.”) trip deafening twee alarm bells, but any snide knee-jerk aversion is soon overwhelmed by the visual beauty of the filmmaking and the open-book guilelessness of the subjects. Tippet and Mims’s slow-motion, abstracted footage of Kevin and Garrison skateboarding recall Paranoid Park, but their documentary’s warmth shames Gus Van Sant’s trite moral numbness. The three friends communicate their love for one another in the spaces between their inelegant sentences, in looks and glances and deferrals and forced laughs. There’s much talk of a skate competition in Arizona. When Kevin blows his routine there, Garrison (a superior skater, judging by the evidence here) tells us that he’s just proud that his friend qualified in the first place, as “cheesy” as he knows that sounds. The passing of time is indicated via (often extreme) haircuts and dye jobs, as the three struggle to chance upon identities that stick.
Garrison recognizes that there’s something dark in Kevin that he keeps to himself. Kevin laughs off the razor cuts on his arm while Garrison tells him, trying to remain friendly, “you’re kind of freaking us out.” Both Kevin and Skye are preparing for parent-prompted moves to Tennessee, leaving the future of these friendships in doubt. These broken-home teens do have the comfort of Christian faith (there’s no drug or alcohol use in the film); the guys volunteer with an outreach called Ignition Skate Ministry, trading tacos for preached advice at skate parks. There’s cloudiness here, too: when Garrison starts seeing the less devout Kristen, the youth group’s brass butt in, letting him know that “it would be beneficial if you broke up.” He acquiesces, because “they’re wiser than me.”
In both Tchoupitoulas and Only the Young, the photographic prowess on display never overshadows, only complements, the youths and settings that are its subjects. Not bothering with the impossibility of “straight” documentary, both films freely smudge time intervals and benignly intrude on the action. And both are more in touch with their subjects’ curiosity because of this. Kevin compares his friendship with Garrison to “rust on this old building . . . We’ll never get rid of it.” The young lives in these documentaries will be similarly hard to forget.