In a world without parents, kids actually know what they’re doing for the most part. They can take care of each other, find the basics of survival, and make life work in a land without adults. But, without parents, the typical teenage tensions of jock versus punk bubble up into violent rivalries. This is the world of Jovanka Vuckovic’s Riot Girls. Her feature-film debut is jocks vs. punks, east side vs. west side, rich vs. poor, all in the name of survival. Yet, despite these rivalries, Riot Girls is still a hilarious and colorful film that lets kids be kids while also kicking major ass.
It is an alternate version of 1995. A strange wasting disease has wiped out all of the adults. This has left kids to fend for themselves and form alliances. Here, the poor kids live on the east side of town, while the rich jocks live on the west side. On the east side, we meet Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski) and Nat (Madison Iseman), two punks trying to have fun in the face of a terrifying reality. Scratch sports a tall mohawk, Nat wears thick eyeliner, and both wear leather jackets covered in patches and spikes. Punk never dies, even in the face of the apocalypse. However, they must dig deep into their punk sensibilities when Nat’s brother and the group’s leader, Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois), is kidnapped by the west side jocks, also known as the Titans.
The Titans, ruled with an iron fist by Jeremy (Munro Chambers), the oldest kid in town, live in the local high school and train kids to be ruthless fighters. Meanwhile, the east side has a much more relaxed approach, treating each other as equals and living in harmony without dictator-like rule. This is a story of jocks versus nerds and outcasts taken to the extreme. The jocks, of course, rule the school, wear letter jackets like military uniforms, and collect weapons like candy. The outcasts have a more DIY approach, not unlike the punk movement. They don’t have many vehicles, they use bats are protection, and their “uniforms” are band t shirts and leather jackets emblazoned with phrases like “Eat the Rich.”
This is not the grim dark post apocalyptic landscape seen in films like Children of Men, The Road, or even Mad Max: Fury Road. This is a colorful world, while full of violence and tension, where kids maintain some semblance of innocence and wonder. Scratch takes the time to spray paint a bright red “fuck you” on a wall. “Fuck you” also covers abandoned chalkboards. The east side hideout is full of color and sparkles, with each kid decorating their own space like their own bedroom. This is a fantasy world of sorts, where resources are scarce but the only real danger appears to be the rivalry between east and west.
Riot Girls’ utilizes a comic-book-like style from its opening moments to further convey that this is a colorful version of an ending world. The opening scene, which establishes the film’s context, is illustrated and written out in comic book panels. The colors are bright and bold, not dark and foreboding. Punk music plays loudly in the background as we move through the panels of explanation. Then, each character is introduced with comic book captions and a brief caricature of themselves. This is supposed to be a wildly violent, yet fun, story about kids trying to fight bullies in the most extreme situations possible.
One of Riot Girls’ best qualities is its inclusion of queer characters and relationships. Scratch is androgynous and pretty obviously in love with Nat. But her sexuality and gender identity is never used against her or brought up as an insult. It may seem like a low standard, but in genre filmmaking, it is always refreshing to see characters like Scratch survive and thrive in the spotlight. She is not excessively punished or put through torturous trials. She and Nat get a glorious happy gay ending that puts lesbian love unabashedly on display. This is especially a breath of fresh air in a subgenre about putting women through hell in the face of lawless lands.
Riot Girls is a new take on the post apocalyptic landscape. Sure, it’s violent, but it’s also funny. It isn’t all about bleakness and desperation, but about finding ways to be a kid when it doesn’t seem possible. Vuckovic has taken the typical teen comedy and combined with the post apocalyptic film to bring teenage rivalries to the next level. She answers the question, “What would we do without parents” better than Jimmy Neutron could. Riot Girls imagines queer futures that are placed in the able hands of youth; it spits in the face of anyone who doubts the capabilities of the younger generations.