'Only the Young' on PBS, a tender look at a trio of teens

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

In the sweet, heartbreaking and highly accomplished "Only the Young," premiering Monday as part of the PBS documentary series "POV," twentysomething Cal Arts alumni Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims return to the Santa Clarita Valley to make a film about teenagers in a distressed place and time -- and the pockets of beauty and relief they find there.

The trio of Kevin, Garrison and Skye are their intertwined subjects, skateboarding, punk-rock churchgoers in Black Flag and Minor Threat T-shirts. (Kevin and Garrison are best friends; Garrison and Skye are an on-and-off couple; Kevin and Skye kissed once.) Tippet and Mims follow them through breakups and reconciliations, pledges and changes of allegiance, radical haircuts and hair colors, from Halloween to Christmas to Valentine's to graduation day.

They clearly love these kids, and, as if honoring that fact, don't attempt to abstract any lessons from their lives or herd them into thematic order. We see that Kevin has carved something into his arm, but there's no context offered, only the moment, without explanation or conclusion. (Garrison: "You're kind of freaking us out." Kevin: "I've done this before, why are you freaking out now?")

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Such small comment as the filmmakers allow themselves comes in the images they make, which are artful without being arty, composed yet not imposed; rich with immanence, with an apprehension of unfolding, mysterious life, they make you feel without telling you what to feel. They are tender as well toward the bleached blue California sky, the scrubby hills and high tension lines, the abandoned houses and secret creek-sides, housing tracts built to create an illusion of affluence, and the ironic desolation of an abandoned miniature golf course. "This used to be a waterfall, I think," Garrison says. "But now it's just a fall."

Television spends a lot of time picturing teenagers, but usually to some predetermined end that flatters and exploits them. TV kids, the sort that writers make up, don't say things like, "I've been through enough kisses to know that they're all just a waste of time, unless there's something," or "I'm wearing this uniform because my great-grandmother died in it," or "We're going to get a knock on the door and they're going to repossess, like, all my great posters" -- as Skye does here.

Or as Kevin says of Garrison and what he'll carry on, past the end of their "good times" and shared experience, "He's going to infect my life with happiness and joy -- but deep inside I'll be dying."

"We're all dying," Garrison says. "That's the morbid part about this."

"We're all dying -- happily."


"Greatly," Kevin says. "We die greatly."



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