Young Bodies Heal Quickly Dir. Andrew T. Betzer

[Factory 25; 2015]

Styles: indie, drama
Others: Permanent Vacation, Slacker, Wrong

I obsessively watch nature documentaries: partly because I find them calming, partly because I wanted to be a zoologist when I was ten, and partly because I get tired of staring at my wall. I’ve watched them for years, and a few months ago I noticed a specific shift in how I assess a well-made one. When funding is in place, distant locations and quality camerawork are de facto expectations. What really impresses me as an adult are editing teams who can rend the sinew and viscera, the entropy inherent in the natural world, into a fluid narrative. When your actors slink through forests and your script is nothing but base instinct, presenting a story at the finish line is an impressive accomplishment.

Young Bodies Heal Quickly is, in essence, an unedited (or loosely edited) nature documentary. The film follows two brothers known only as Older (Gabriel Croft) and Younger (Hale Lytle) after Older apparently escapes from some kind of institution, probably Juvie. After accidentally killing a girl, they’re assisted in skipping town by Mom (Sandra Hale) and careen through vignette after vignette of stony expressions and opaque interactions. With background information, a beautifully coarse Super 16 film holds together a narrative on fawn’s legs and helps it hobble down the road; without background information, it’s a shaky glimpse into the violence and isolation director Andrew T. Betzer sees in the pith of human nature.

The theme of human nature writhes through Young Bodies Heal Quickly. Older is a base antagonist from the beginning, throwing himself over barbed wire in a ridiculous wrestler’s helmet, shooting a pellet gun at livestock and brawling with two girls on four-wheelers. Younger plays the witness, the emulator, the empty vessel, trailing after Older as he carves swath after swath of discord in everyone’s life. All throughout, from moving shots of the boys running to fixed cameras of them idle as they watch TV or eat, is a stagnant tension. Operating on a base of the stark interactions of Permanent Vacation, a sprig of Slacker’s aimless pacing and a generous dab of Dupieux’s surface nihilism, Young Bodies Heal Quickly is poised for the first half-hour to evoke so many interesting questions, but the film constantly defaults to stares almost as blank as the audiences’.

The inconsistencies are also in the casting and acting. While Older and Younger convincingly play two dense country boys in medias meander, others fall flat on their face. When they visit their sister (Kate Lyn Sheil), any credibility on her part as even a remote relation is shredded. While the character is supposed to be living a quiet life with her middle-aged black carpenter husband and young son, Sheil looks more like she was plucked out of Williamsburg without even time to fix her bangs and told to pout in a dilapidated house. The surprise power role comes from the distantly older and estranged Dad (Daniel P. Jones). His role as a groundskeeper and his unsavory obsession with war and Nazi memorabilia lends so much more credibility to the strangely endearing moments with his sons.

In the strongest moment of the film, Older and Dad are sitting on a river bank after a Vietnam War reenactment goes awry, and Dad sees a gash on Older’s hand. Known to have been a medic in the war from earlier interactions, he pins down Older, ashamed of the gash and trying to keep it plied to his chest, and wraps his hand amid disorienting shots of sunlight, gauze, and pained faces. Is it a stretch to say Betzer intended to portray Older’s natural state as a writhing, wounded creature? Probably, but this moment is also the closest the film comes to any kind of moral or psychological statement.

The cinematography of Young Bodies Heal Quickly is almost strong enough to stand on its own and carry the film across the tinder-bridge story. Cinematographer Sean Williams’ 16mm film, applied to the broken landscape of the South is, in its own way, the man’s interpretation of kintsugi: the Japanese practice of mending broken pottery with molten gold, making the piece more beautiful than when it was whole by virtue of emotional significance. Williams plays this in spades. A toilet suspended over a clear glass tank, a neglected taxidermied shark, and even a beer can in field, innocuous or repellent images, take on a sad beauty through the camera lens. Williams made a touchingly broken frame; Betzer just had some trouble filling it with subject matter.

This isn’t the first film probing human nature, and unless all film made after it and every camera in the world suddenly bursts into flame, it’s not the last. If Betzer can make good on the promise he’s shown so far in his career, Young Bodies Heal Quickly will take on a new appreciation in posterity, but it’s just too weak to be remembered after the festival season fades. Take a page from the nature documentarians; if you’re patient enough to stare at the static long enough, it’ll tell you a story worth hearing.

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