[Atlanta Film Festival] Savage Youth (2018) - Reviewed

Savage Youth screened at ATLFF

Michael Curtis Johnson’s Savage Youth premiered at Slamdance 2018 and was just screened at the Atlanta Film Festival. It is by far the most powerful and disturbing crime drama released thus far this year, in my opinion. Not many films can convey to the audience a sense of impending doom in the first opening minutes, through the combination of the score and strong acting. From the intense beginning to its emotional conclusion, the film takes us on the harrowing journey of six youths whose lives will be forever changed. With its strong narrative and dialogue, a haunting, incredible score, and outstanding performances from the lead actors, Savage Youth is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions that is not to be missed.

Written and directed by Johnson, the film is a slow burn true crime drama based on actual events that occurred in the filmmaker's hometown of Joliet around four years ago. It is about six youths in an impoverished city whose lives eventually intersect in one of the most twisted and horrific ways. At the heart of this is a Romeo and Juliet type of love story, one that is passionate but ultimately leads to a disastrous conclusion. The young people in this city seemed doomed from the start, lacking the standard resources that tend to plague many troubled kids in the United States. There seems to be little to no parental supervision, they are plagued with poverty and lacking proper education, and their perceived sources of earning income or succeeding in life is through either rapping, art, or selling drugs. Racism, drug abuse, and other social problems also plague them and further contribute to their problems.

Johnson takes a cinéma vérité approach to the style of filming, often making it seem as though a documentary crew is following these individuals around in real-life. Mixing this, narrative scenes that resemble a play, and some true cinematic moments lends to a host of amazing shots and extremely intense and emotional scenes. The selections of the score and songs that are used in particular moments delivers some truly impressive and memorable scenes. The score/soundtrack is outstanding and foreboding, using a blend of ambient sounds and noises and evocative songs to slowly take the audience to a crescendo of sadness in the end.

The performances from the small ensemble cast are terrific, with Will Brittain (Jason) and Sasha Feldman (Lucas) giving stand-out portrayals of their respective characters. Brittain plays Jason, a rapper in a group with his other two friends Lucas and Hyde (J. Michael Troutman). Jason falls in love with Elena (Grace Victoria Cox), whom he met at a party that Elena’s friend Stephanie (Chloe Levine) brought her to. On the other end of the spectrum is Gabe (Tequan Richmond), a small-time pot dealer who ends up expanding his business with his friend Mike (Mitchell Edwards). All of the actors’ performances are great and there is no doubt that these are names that will soon be appearing in big studio projects, but it’s Brittain and Feldman that shine just a little bit brighter. Brittain has a raw intensity and emotion to him as the muscular rapper Jason, generating both sympathy and fear for this character that is extremely talented yet dependent on drugs and alcohol. Feldman fully embodies the odd and terrifyingly troubled Lucas, whose loner rap in an abandoned building is one of the most disturbing and dramatic scenes of the movie.

Savage Youth is a despairing movie about a group of people who probably never had a chance to get anywhere in society besides prison or six feet under. What’s equally unfortunate is that not many people will see this film, let alone even hear about it. But if you do see it, it will end up sticking with you and you won’t be able to stop thinking about it. With its great cinematic choices, superb score and soundtrack, and magnificent performances from the cast, Savage Youth is a sensational piece of cinema that begs to be seen. 

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-Raul Vantassle