Sundance 2023 Review: Thembi L. Banks’ “Young. Wild. Free.” Takes Things to Another Level

”Really Bob Ross, that’s what we came up here for?” Cassidy (Sierra Capri) says to Brandon (Algee Smith) in “Young. Wild. Free.” as the two are sitting atop a mountain in Los Angeles and he pulls out his sketchbook. He confesses he hasn’t been here since a second grade class trip and suspected he wouldn’t get there again, if not for Cassidy’s car and more importantly, the confidence she’s instilled in him and surely it’s a moment he’d like to capture. Director Thembi L. Banks doesn’t hide that Cassidy is a prototypical manic pixie dream girl, having swept into his life like a whirlwind with seemingly magical powers – their meet cute is a convenience store robbery she instigates that he may be skeptical of, but it puts food in his fridge, a constant concern for his family as the son of a working single mother – and she even leans into it, sprinkling her with a few rhinestones above her left eye as if it were fairy dust. (Needless to say, costume designer Neisha Lemle makes the most of having a field day.)

Cassidy would also seem to be quite conscious of this trope as a movie-mad teen, eager to tell Brandon on their first proper date that they’re eating at the diner where the first scene in “Reservoir Dogs” was set and her bedroom adorned with movie posters ranging from “Foxy Brown” to “The Wrecking Crew,” and this self-awareness proves to be a stroke of genius in the film where she lives each day out as if she’s the star of her movie while Brandon goes about his with a detachment that stems from feeling miscast. Not that he doesn’t have flights of fancy – as early as the first scene of “Young.Wild. Free.” Brandon imagines himself leaping over a desk to choke a boss who’s about to fire him from a fast food job from getting into it with a coworker, but he stops himself knowing any blowback isn’t his alone when he has to essentially raise his younger brother Trey (Jeremiah King) and sister Clara (Isa Eden). They have a father (Mike Epps) that still comes around while his doesn’t, though that doesn’t mean the relationship is any healthier when his visits involve taking the prescription pills intended for their mother Janice (Sanaa Lathan), whose despair appears crippling in the hours she can’t be on the job, and when the responsibility falls on Brandon to keep everything on track, it’s easy to disassociate, particularly once Cassidy enters the picture.

That “Young. Wild. Free.” plays like such a welcome diversion for so long as well is part of its master plan, applying a candy coating to what at heart is relatively tragic character study. Banks shows some slick sleight of hand to pay off the set-up smartly crafted with co-writers Juel Taylor and Tony Reetenmaier, showing Brandon can only run so long before reality catches up with him and though the central relationship is between Cassidy and Brandon, the one that comes to resonate most is between him and Janice, who through no fault of her own has passed down the weight of her own upbringing onto him. It’s heavy stuff for what appears to be charming young adult romance on the surface, but fitting when telling of someone who’s got so much going on underneath and just as Cassidy opens up an entirely new line of thought for Brandon, “Young. Wild. Free” generously does the same.

“Young. Wild. Free.” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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