Review by James Lindorf
Riot Girls is an action sci-fi feature set in an alternate 1995 where a mysterious illness has killed every adult. With the adults gone, the town of Potter’s Bluff has split into two factions. On the east side are the poor kids who work together scavenging the ruins of the former city to survive. The west side is the home of the rich and popular who have made the high school their base. Behind their brutal dictator Jeremy, the area runs with a cult-like precision, and anyone that dares to disobey is dispatched, often in a public display. When Jack, the leader from the East, is caught stealing supplies, it is up to Nat (Madison Iseman) and her best friend Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski) to rescue him. Riot Girls was directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, written by Katherine Collins, filmed by Celiana Cárdenas and will be released in select theaters and On-Demand September 13th.
One of the most impressive elements of the film, in both its visuals and storytelling, is the sense of dichotomy. The differences between the East and West take this tale of the haves vs. the have-nots much deeper than your typical revenge/rescue action movie. It is evident in the inhabitants of the two factions with punks vs. jocks. The contrast is shown again in their lifestyles. The East features a bohemian style communal living where everyone pitches in, and they benefit and suffer together. The Westside has a structured power system that cannot be questioned. Jeremy controls everything good and bad that happens in is his twisted version of Pleasantville.
There is also the physical division of the groups thanks to the beautiful location of Parry Sound, a popular destination in Southern Ontario. The area is surrounded by water, creating a visual barrier between the East and West, with only a long, lonely bridge connecting them. Production Designer Jennifer Morden was a great contributor to the film, dressing the two sides in contrasting ways. These differences added to the uneasy feeling when Nat and Scratch cross into enemy territory. The Eastside is littered with graffiti, ramps and broken-down cars, while the only thing spilling over into the streets of the West is fear and oppression.
The acting is all well done with no one standing out positively or negatively. The chemistry between Iseman and Kwiatkowski is evident. They are believable as “old” friends who have survived the worst, mostly because they relied on the other. There is also a “will they/won’t they” aspect to their relationship as Scratch cares for Nat in more than a friendly way. She is overly protective of her and willing to risk anything to make her happy or keep her safe. Unfortunately for her, Nat’s feelings are much less clear. This conflict between the pair adds to the difficulty of their mission to rescue Nat’s brother.
With excellent acting, strong characters and a great sense of place, it is only the plot that lets the air out of their adventure. Too much time is dedicated to Jack and his imprisonment, as well as a couple of unnecessary side characters. Scratch and Nat are badasses but have too few opportunities to show off. In a movie that screams for blood and action, the kill count is depressingly low. Thankfully the deaths that are shown are fairly intense with some decent practical effects.
Riot Girls takes an 80s plot and updates it with a 90s punk sensibility and a modern approach to LGBTQ characters. It is a well-crafted, well-shot movie that will entertain its viewers but leave them wanting more action, more blood and more of the Riot Girls.