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Review: Riot Girls

September 20, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Following the outbreak of a mysterious illness that wiped out all of the grown ups, leaving just the teenagers behind, the town of Potter’s Bluff has divided into two halves. The East Siders are scrappy survivalist punks who get by on their own, and the West Siders have embraced totalitarian thinking and are ruled by a viscous high school gang known as the Titans.

This is the setup for Riot Girls, a Canadian post-apocalyptic film that is set in an alternate version of 1995, and marks the feature directorial debut of Jovanka Vuckovic, the former editor of Rue Morgue magazine who previously helmed a segment of the female horror anthology XX and a handful of short films.

The main protagonists of Riot Girls are Nat (Madison Iseman) and Scratch (Paloma Kwiatowski), two skater punks whose friendship the latter clearly wishes was more than platonic. When Nat’s brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois) is taken by the Titans, Nat and Scratch hatch a plan to infiltrate the West Side and get him back, which means confronting the megalomaniac gang leader Jeremy (Munro Chambers) and his band of cronies, who are all instantly recognizable by the blue and yellow letterman jackets that they wear.

What follows is a fairly basic story about the haves versus the have-nots, that goes exactly where you expect it will. The film’s main selling point is its sense of style, including the use of comic book graphics to introduce us to the characters and transition between scenes. Because of this, the entire thing has a bit of a cartoony feel to it, but this bright and colourful aesthetic can end up working against the material at times. When the film tries to tackle more serious topics, it doesn’t really work, and the brief but jarring moments of graphic violence, including a gunshot blast to the face, feel somewhat out of place.

Steeped in a ’90s punk aesthetic, Riot Girls feels like it’s trying really hard to be edgy, but it often comes across as rather tame. The film is populated by uninteresting, one-note characters that have personality but lack substance, which leaves much of the cast essentially playing broad caricatures, and the entire story is built around a rivalry that isn’t developed well enough for us to really care. The film doesn’t do enough world-building for us to become truly invested in its post-apocalyptic landscape, with the whole deathly illness subplot feeling like a convenient afterthought to get the adults out of the picture.

The stakes of it feel surprisingly low, and the whole thing just sort of peters out after roughly eighty minutes, which leaves Riot Girls feeling more like a short film or TV pilot that has been stretched to feature length. But this is not to say that there is no enjoyment to be found in watching it. While this is ultimately an exercise in styler over substance, the film still features a few fun if obvious needle drops – including Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” – and the whole thing is fast-paced and poppy enough to make it mildly entertaining while it’s on.

Riot Girls is now playing in limited release at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.

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