“Rebel Without a Cause,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Wiz,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Unforgiven,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Fight Club,” “Kill Bill” — the movie references in “Young. Wild. Free.” pass by fast and furiously. Unfortunately, only viewers who haven’t seen all of the above are likely to appreciate the cinematic tropes on which this film’s plot rests — including a final twist that, depending on one’s perception, either enhances or undermines everything to come before it.
Where “Y.W.F” works best is as a showcase for the powerhouse performance of outstanding lead Algee Smith (“Euphoria”). Smith plays Brandon, a thoughtful high-school senior who’s forced to inhabit a range of roles each day: dutiful son, loving brother, aspiring artist, head of household. His mother (Sanaa Lathan, who’s also an executive producer) is struggling with mental illness that leaves her in bed all day, and her boyfriend (an excellent Mike Epps) shows up only intermittently — and primarily to steal her prescriptions.
Brandon is determined to provide a stable life for his young brother (Jeremiah King) and sister (Isa Eden), but when he learns the family may lose their house in South LA due to unpaid taxes, he’s pushed to desperation.
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Enter Cassidy (Sierra Capri, “On My Block”), the manic pixie of Brandon’s dreams — or nightmares. It’s hard to tell which, since she upends his life so quickly and completely. Cassidy is also unhappy but expresses it by acting out: robbing convenience stores, speeding around curves in her red BMW, grabbing for guns that may or may not be loaded. She also happens to be gorgeous, smart and up for anything. So Brandon goes along for the ride, even as he, and we, can only assume they’re both headed for a crash.
This is the first feature for writer-director Thembi Banks, who already has a successful career in TV (including an Emmy nod for “Only Murders in the Building”). As a director, she’s got a sharp eye and a clear connection to the movies that Cassidy also adores. But so much of the script (co-written with Juel Taylor) feels as though Cassidy herself might have imagined it, with more passion than perspective.
When a film revisits stories, characters and locations so similar to ones we’ve seen before, it requires a particularly strong point of view to rise above the realm of homage — or cliché. Cassidy is in many ways the driving force of the plot and yet remains a device throughout, designed from the start to serve as Brandon’s instigation, inspiration, scapegoat and reward.
It’s a good thing, then, that Smith appears to be in a different film altogether. Though his interactions with the adults have a compelling charge, they’re ultimately stops on the road trip with Cassidy. Thanks to his performance, simultaneously expansive and grounded, we’d follow Brandon anywhere. But if you think you can spot the final destination several miles early, you’re probably right. And you’ve already seen too many movies to fully appreciate this one.
“Young. Wild. Free.” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.