Jovanka Vuckovic

Riot Girls

riot girls

In a post-apocalyptic version of the 90’s lies a small town divided in two. On one side are the poor kids and the punks, on the other are the rich kids and the jocks. When the jocks manage to capture the leader of the punk kids, it’s up to a small band of misfits to go on a rescue mission into enemy territory.

Director Jovanka Vuckovic is most well known for her segment, “The Box,” from horror anthology XX. Now she’s making her feature film debut with Riot Girls, written by Katherine Collins (Blindspot, Lost in Space). The film essentially takes a typical high school 90’s film of jocks vs. punks and injects it with steroids. The post-apocalyptic setting where a virus has wiped out all adults turns the rivalry between the two groups deadly. Without adults to control the violence, the two gangs divide the small town, constantly fighting for resources. The plot focuses on two young women, Nat and Scratch, who are members of the punk gang on the poor side of town. It’s Nat’s brother who is taken by the rival jock gang. These two lovable misfits, with the help of a newcomer, decide to venture into jock territory to save Nat’s brother.

Riot Girls is a compelling film in the way it portrays bullying. The filmmakers also waste no time in portraying the punks as the good guys and the jocks as the bad guys. Aside from the obvious connected to bullying in how the jock’s behave, the societies the two gangs create are also very different. The punks have a more communal society where everyone is taken care of and has a say, while the jocks are run by a malicious dictator and his cronies. It is an extreme portrayal that still feels grounded in reality.

One point of confusion with the plot is the nature of the illness. It is clear that it wiped out all of the adults and that is what led to the current state of the small town. If it had been left at that, then that bit of mystery around the virus would have worked perfectly well. The issue that arises comes from a reference to the virus later on in the film. It seems to be a moment of some significance that hints at some greater piece of the puzzle when it comes to the virus. Yet, after that moment, the virus is never mentioned again. It is a small moment, but the fact that it is not addressed again at any point in the rest of the film makes it seem like a loose end.

A very successful aspect of Riot Girls is how the film portrays Nat and Scratch. Nat is played by Madison Iseman (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Annabelle Comes Home). She is the most down to earth and relatable character as she simply tries to live the best life possible in this new world. Scratch, played by Paloma Kwiatkowski (Bates Motel, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters), is the much more guarded of the two. She presents a tough exterior and isn’t trusting of those not part of her group, yet inside she is likely even more vulnerable than Nat. Not only do both Iseman and Kwiatkowski deliver great performances on their own, they also have great chemistry together. These two young women are a couple, yet the filmmakers don’t use their relationship as a gimmick and make a point of going, “LOOK OVER HERE, THESE GIRLS ARE LESBIANS!” Nat and Scratch are cinematically shown like any straight couple, which is very important when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation in film. Aside from these two strong leading ladies, I need to give performance shout-outs to Ajay Friese (Lost in Space) as the kind outsider, Sony, and Munro Chambers (Turbo Kid) as the sinister jock leader, Jeremy.

Visually, Riot Girls perfectly captures what the small town may have looked like it the world ended in the 90’s. The film has the sort of shiny, plastic, vibrantly colored look typically found in teen films made in the 90’s. Even the music acts as a killer soundtrack of punk rock hits to transport the audience back in time. The clothing also lends itself to that time period. The punk kids rock ripped jeans, leather jackets, and heavy black eye makeup. The jocks are all perfectly coiffed with their tidy clothes and letterman jackets. Then there are some kids that fall between these two groups that have a more grunge look to them, often wearing a combination of oversized military jackets and flannel. All of this helps to create a sense of the film being in an alternate past, but the most eye-catching visual aspect is the way the filmmakers make the film look like a comic book. The introduction that gives the film context is shown as an animated comic book, but then that theme is continued throughout the film. Many of the transitions between scenes are represented in comic panels. It is a fun and interesting style that definitely catches the eye.

Riot Girls is a genre-bending adventure that acts as a thrilling ode to misfits. Vuckovic had already shown her filmmaking skills with her short film, but now she has proven she can deliver a compelling feature length film. Not only do Vuckovic and Collins create an interesting alternate reality with Riot Girls, but they also deliver a feminist film with a couple of amazing women smashing the patriarchy. There may be some unanswered questions about the virus by the end of the film, but the primary focus of the rescue mission helps overshadow those questions. The film boasts a great ensemble cast, with Iseman and Kwiatkowski carrying the weight of the film on their able shoulders.  It’s hard not to love these two punks and the alternate reality of the film. This is a must see film for the misfits of the world.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

XX

XX-poster-final

XX is a unique horror anthology in that not only stars women, but all of the shorts are also written and directed by women. Since women writing and directing in the horror genre tend to be few and far between, it is refreshing that these talented females collaborated to create this film. The anthology starts with what could be called an overarching story, but really it is simply a bizarre string of stop motion images to set the eerie tone for what’s to come. While there didn’t seem to be much of a purpose to the stop motion animation other than to act as a visual intermission between segments, it was still quite beautiful in a disturbing way. In order to properly review the rest of the film I will divide by each segment in order of how they were shown.

The Box: This segment was written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic. Her work has primarily been in short films up to this point, and you can see from this segment that it is something she does very well. The Box is about a boy who looks into a gift box belonging to a man on the subway. From that moment on he completely loses any desire to eat for no apparent reason. The rest of the film focuses on the mother, played by Natalie Brown (The Strain, Channel Zero), as she watches her family wither away into nothingness. The makeup and practical effects used to make the son look like he’s starving to death are disturbingly realistic. This short is a slow burn into darkness that is atmospheric and somewhat melancholy. It is a beautifully done short that is also well acted, but I found myself wanting just a little more from the ending.

The Birthday Party: A woman finds her husband dead the morning of her daughter’s big birthday party. Trying not to ruin the celebration, the woman does what she can to keep the body out of sight. This short is written and directed by Annie Clark (also known as St. Vincent). While Clark is known for her music, this is her first attempt at writing and directing a short film. One of my favorite things about this short is the twisted sense of humor about it. Additionally, it had a strange, brightly-colored mid-century modern look to it that reminded me a bit of Edward Scissorhands. I also thought Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness, Up in the Air) was hilarious and relatable as the mother, Mary. This is probably the most visually stunning of the shorts in this anthology, and the most fun.

Don’t Fall: Of all the shorts in XX, Don’t Fall feels the most like a classic horror film. Written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound), this short follows a group of friends going on a hiking and camping trip in the desert. After the four friends find ancient cave paintings, one of the friends becomes possessed by a creature that was depicted in those paintings. This is by far the most frightening of the shorts, as well as the most action-packed. There are some excellent shots set up in such a way that the possessed girl appears to be doing things that should be impossible. It is easy to see how the filmmakers achieved these scenes, but it doesn’t take away from the visual impact.

Her Only Living Son: This short is written and directed by Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Jennifer’s Body) who is probably the most well known of these four women due to her previous work in horror. The story follows a mother preparing for her only son’s eighteenth birthday. In the days leading up to this we learn that her son has some sociopathic tendencies that get worse as his birthday approaches. The main aspect of this short that I really enjoyed was the sense of impending doom. Also, one could easily look at the story as an unofficial sequel to Rosemary’s Baby (and perhaps that was the intent). I thought Christina Kirk (Love is Strange, Taking Woodstock) performed the role of Cora, the mother, quite well. Despite this I still didn’t love the character. She is a bit too meek throughout most of the film and can’t muster the strength to control her son’s dangerous actions.

The aptly named XX (so named because the XX chromosomes determine female sex) is a celebration of women creating bewitching works of horror. These shorts result in a highly entertaining anthology focusing on different areas of horror. While each of them are marvelous in their own way, I would have to say my favorite segment of XX is The Birthday Party. It is quite fitting this anthology would be released during the eighth annual Women in Horror month. By watching this film you are lending your support to women who want to make a name for themselves in the horror industry by working behind the camera rather than in front of it. This is a trend I hope to see more of in the future.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10