A fun, stylish, energetic, and endearingly low budget throwback to the likes of Tuff Turf, Dangerously Close, Class of 1999, and the works of the late Dan O’Bannon Canadian director Jovanka Vuckovic’s Riot Girls is a refreshing genre cinema rarity. Not only is it set in an alternate version of 1995 rather than sometimes in the 80s like every other semi-nostalgic genre flick or television show these days, but it’s also one of the few, straight-up punk rock driven thrillers since that bygone era. It might not sound like much to go on, but Riot Girls confidently and entertainingly sets itself apart from the pack rather nicely thanks to a well rounded script, playful direction, and a whole lotta swagger.
A mysterious gut-rotting virus has wiped out all of the adult population on Earth, leaving kids and teens to fend for themselves. There’s no explanation as to what the age cut-off for the virus might be, and as far as the plot of Riot Girls is concerned, the epidemic is purely incidental. In the small town of Potter’s Bluff, the remaining children have splintered off into two factions: the hardscrabble Eastsiders who scavenge everything they can to survive, and the entitled Westside Titans, who proudly parade around in varsity letter jackets and rule their territory under strict sets of rules and guidelines. The Eastsiders and the Titans are constantly locked in a perpetual battle for control and survival that comes to a head when lower class leader, Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois), is kidnapped during a supply run. Jack’s punk rock sister, Nat (Madison Iseman), and her more intimidating ride-or-die best friend, Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski), venture deep into Titan territory on an important rescue mission, aided by a mod loving westside turncoat (Ajay Friese).
Riot Girls launches into its high concept adventure forthwith, following some foundation laying exposition delivered via shifting and sliding comic book panels, a recurring editorial motif that’s a clear nod to Walter Hill’s teens-run-amok masterpiece and this film’s spiritual older brother, The Warriors. It all makes perfect sense and is rather simply explained, allowing Vuckovic (XX) and her cast the chance to cut loose and have a good bit of bloody fun. Instead of hiding her film’s influences or leaning into them for cheap pops of nostalgia, Vuckovic and veteran television screenwriter Katherine Collins wear their influences as proudly as enormous band patches on the back of a denim or leather jacket.
Although there are plenty of nods to classic 80s and 90s genre cinema, Riot Girls is most giddily indebted to O’Bannon, who never made a film like this, but I’m sure he would’ve lovingly approved of it. Potter’s Bluff was the name of the town from the writer’s criminally underrated Dead and Buried, and Riot Girls contains a pretty badass needle drop that will make fans of Return of the Living Dead squeal with delight. Riot Girls isn’t a horror film, and while Vuckovic’s background certainly suggests she could’ve taken this material in such a direction, the movie is more of an approximation of a certain attitude rather than any sort of pastiche or direct homage. It’s a film that knows what it likes and who it wants to entertain, and it hits those marks with effortless precision.
There are plenty of nifty storytelling touches, like the image obsessed Titans using the local high school as their homebase or batteries functioning as a commodity on par with gasoline in the Mad Max movies. The production design and costuming are top notch, with punks, jocks, and all the misfits caught between the two extremes having their own unique and highly detailed looks. The relentlessly catchy and appropriately bombastic score from Peter Chapman is a spot on recreation of 90s blockbuster themes. At times, Riot Girls feels like a snobs versus slobs action picture that’s been given a CW sheen, but for a movie that’s set in the 90s rather than the 80s, that slickness is rather appropriate. In many ways, the punk rock heroes represent that final decade of the 20th century doing battle with the cool kid gatekeepers of the 1980s. It’s enough to make one wonder why more filmmakers haven’t moved past the Reagan years and onto the Clinton era yet.
But what’s most surprising about Riot Girls is the overwhelming amount of depth that Collins and Vuckovic are able to give to their wide cast of characters in just 80 minutes of screen time. Riot Girls might find the well matched Kwiatkowski and Iseman owning everyone around them, but it’s also a film with no bad or lesser parts. As Scratch and Nat’s journey across the bridge to the other side of town intensifies, their presence creates new problems for everyone around them. They’re primarily in opposition to the nefarious Jeremy (Munro Chambers), the ruthless Titan leader and oldest kid in town, and Todd (Darren Eisnor), the group’s psychopathic enforcer, and while both are outstanding foils for our heroes, the side characters they meet along the way are just as intriguing. There’s a pair of weed dealers (Stefani Kimber and Nicolas Aqui) being punished for selling on the Westside without Jeremy’s knowledge, a Titan screw-up who needs to prove himself (Evan Marsh), a couple of basement dwelling nerds with violent tendencies (Jake Sim and Carson MacCormac) trying to gain acceptance into the cool kids organization, and even a diminutive hustler (Joseph Curto) who’s become a black market auto dealer since the collapse of society. The world Riot Girls is set in doesn’t take much work to establish, but in place of elaborate laws, plot mechanics, or rules, Collins and Vuckovic have invested all of their non-kinetic energy into making sure the characters are as fleshed out as possible. It’s a wonderful touch that makes Riot Girls more than just brash, head bursting entertainment.
Those positives don’t entirely last heading into the final act of Riot Girls, but it never makes enough missteps to kill any good will that the cast and material has built up. Riot Girls keeps hinting at a massive confrontation and turf war on the horizon, but that moment never comes. The film opts instead for a logically fitting, but overall uninspired final showdown that feels somewhat anticlimactic after the successful build up that came before it. The ending of Riot Girls isn’t a bad one by any stretch, but one that seems to have been cut down from something more ambitious due to time and budgetary limitations. It’s a satisfying conclusion to some degree, but also the difference between Riot Girls being a very good diversion and a stone cold cult classic in the waiting. Still, for anyone in the mood for the kind of action picture that hasn’t been made much since the turn of the century, Riot Girls is the perfect sort of old school backscratcher to take care of that itch.
Riot Girls is now playing at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto. It will be available on VOD and various digital platforms across Canada on October 1.
Check out the trailer for Riot Girls: