If there is a “crisis” among American boys, as you sometimes hear during slow news weeks, its cause is pretty straight-up clear: The bored and brutish traits our culture encourages in boys no longer have anything to do with the ones this economy actually rewards. In its terrific first half-hour, writer-director Andrew T. Betzer’s Young Bodies Heal Quickly plays like cockeyed comedy based on that truth.
A hunky lout raises pointless hell in the fields and meadows of one of those parts of Maryland that dips down into what may as well be the Deep South. The lout — he’s never named, but he’s embodied by Gabriel Croft — beats up an abandoned car, peppers BBs at livestock, and gets into a brawl with young women riding ATVs. It’s a playful fight, despite all the grunting and swearing, with a vaguely erotic charge. As the lout ducks out of their way, one of the girls flashes a quick, heartening smile.
And then a ten-year-old boy bashes her in the skull with a baseball bat.
The kid appears to be the lout’s brother. (Also unnamed, he’s played by Hale Lytle.) He’s been shadowing the lout all along, bound to him by a shared interest in jackassery and not much else. Problem is, the kid’s less clear on the distinction between playful stupidity and shit getting real.
So, about ten minutes into the movie, these two must go on the run. Their mother, in a flurry of strong and wordless scenes, boots them from the nest. But what happens next is curious, fascinating, frustrating: Rather than a manhunt, or tears and bonding, or even any moments of remorse, these two just keep on jackassing, but not like they would in any other roadtrip movie you’ve ever seen. There are no set pieces, here, and there are never really consequences: They don’t blow up a gas station or get chased out of town by bikers. Instead, they fall asleep behind the wheel. They cruise too fast through beauty they don’t seem to notice or value. They don’t speak, really — the first time anyone says more than three or four words at once, they’re in French. (More on that below.)
They’re bored, they’re not going anyplace in particular, and Betzer and invaluable cinematographer Sean Price Williams frame their pranks and dust-ups at an observational remove: Even the lout’s own movie knows that nothing he’s doing matters all that much. (The film, shot in 16mm, offers sharp-eyed studies of Maryland’s landscapes and beach towns.)
They first stop at the lout’s sister’s house, somewhere several horizons away, but they quickly alienate her and her husband, and soon are racing off, with the kid having to leap into the car as it’s going. The only way the lout knows how to relate to anyone, even relations, is via provocation — he blasts an airhorn at his sister’s chickens and, for a laugh, makes his beer can spritz foam at her. From there, the pair speed to Ocean City to pass out on the beach and get embroiled in choice melodrama from another kind of movie: A French hotel maid takes them in, but she’s cuckolding her lover, a chef, who comes at our lout with a cleaver.
You can’t spoil a movie like Young Bodies Heal Quickly. Betzer’s debut isn’t about its slight story or unconnected events. It’s about the experience of them — if it belongs to any genre, it’s a new one, maybe a lout-along, inviting us to join a young man’s search for things to light or kick. Just off the boardwalk, at night, he lights off emergency flares from the trunk of the car, a moment of offhand radiance apparently more significant to him than when he later gets laid.
I found much of its first half rousing, unnerving, and hilarious. The second, sadly, is more dithering, involving a Nazi memorabilia collector and a tiresome climax of war re-enactors playing with guns in the woods — apparently they’re re-fighting Vietnam until they finally get it right.
But even in its longueurs Young Bodies yields beauty and surprise, and there are inklings of some grand conception, even among scenes that feel haphazardly chosen: As these grown men play at war, the lout and the boy both seem to lose track of what’s real and what’s a goof. Perhaps the point is that for the wannabe soldiers the game feels full and real — a chance to be all the manly things they feel they should be and don’t otherwise get the chance to. And what does it mean that, in a fight, our lout proves again and again to be somewhat pacifistic? Whatever’s going on, in the
final reels Betzer (who also edited) gives you plenty of time to think about it.