Caitlin Quinlan Sundance

Sundance London 2018: Never Goin’ Back review

★★★☆☆

Fresh faces Maia Mitchell and Cami Morrone star in the debut feature film from Texan director Augustine Frizzell, the chaotic, stoner-girl trip Never Goin’ Back – playing this weekend at Sundance London.

High-school dropouts Jessie (Morrone) and Angela (Mitchell) are inseparable. Nothing matters more to them than each other as they move from day-to-day, scrambling to find rent money and keep up with their drug habits. Joined by Jessie’s laughably idiotic brother and his friends in their house, the girls find themselves caught up in the boys’ failed schemes and their own scrappy adventures.

Mitchell and Morrone work extremely well alongside one another, both playfully charming and comically gifted throughout. The film seems to be perfect fodder for a young Disney Channel star to make an abrupt break from the innocence and youth of that platform, not dissimilar to the likes of Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in A24’s previous candy-coloured, drug-fuelled Spring Breakers. Never Goin’ Back is an unabashed portrayal of girls swimming in their personal blend of chaos and grime, a celebration of the fierce protection two best friends share for each other.

The comedy in the film is oftentimes predictable but it mostly works for such a short and sweet production. Frizzell saves the best laughs for late in the film, as a rolling gag becomes the comedic highlight to the unexpected tune of Barry Manilow’s Mandy. It is crude and juvenile in the best possible way, emblematic of the silliness of the girls’ youthfully frenetic lifestyles.

The film skirts the line between making a mockery of the male gaze and falling prey to it; the girls fight against and manipulate the idiocy of the boys around them with plenty of eye rolls and sarcastic retorts, yet Frizzell’s camera inevitably captures them as the archetypal fantasy of a bro imagination. The girls are affectionate towards one another and cosy up together in their underwear – seemingly the staple cinematic image of female friendship. After police officers discover a large pane of glass propped up on videotapes in the girls’ bedroom during a drugs search, a flashback shows the two of them racing each other to snort cocaine, caressing faces and holding hands, before one of them proposes a make-out session.

It is such an exaggeration of these fantasies that it must not be taken seriously, but it relies on that double entanglement of appealing to the gaze that it simultaneously tries to reject. There are moments when it feels a little unnecessary but the sense of parody on the whole is amusing and contributes extensively to the film’s desire to use the girls’ wit to further reduce the boys and their brainlessness.

The film ultimately resides in a desolate landscape for the two of them, no real sign of an escape for them or promise of something brighter ahead. The film seems happy to depict this corner of the world, sticky with Texan heat, in its own bubble. There aren’t too many quiet moments in the film that offer a chance to reflect on the sadder truths, mostly that these girls are barely seventeen years old and wandering aimlessly through a troubled adolescence. Their small-town dreams for a beach holiday in Galveston are met with scoffs of derision from everyone else, but they can think of nowhere they’d rather be.

Sundance London 2018 runs from 31 May-2 June at Picturehouse Central.

Caitlin Quinlan