Young. Wild. Free. - Remove term: Thembi L. Banks Thembi L. Banks
Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

Young. Wild. Free. — Thembi L. Banks [Sundance ’23 Review]

January 27, 2023

When we meet Algee Smith’s Brandon in Thembi L. Banks’ feature debut, Young. Wild. Free., he’s already beset by external stressors. A high school senior living in South Central with his manic depressive single mother, Janice (Sanaa Lathan), and two young siblings whom he’s practically raising by himself, Brandon is fired in the film’s first scene from a McJob he desperately needs, after a physical altercation with a coworker. Janice can barely get out of bed to buy groceries, her baby daddy Lamont (Mike Epps) is a low-rent drug dealer who keeps coming by the house to steal her unused lithium, years worth of unpaid property taxes means there’s a lien on the house, and Brandon is so broke he’s reduced to stealing Top Ramen from the convenience store around the corner. When Brandon is robbed, at gunpoint, at the aforementioned market by a sexy female criminal in a sparkly balaclava, it’s both the latest in a long line of indignities as well as a brief distraction from the mundanities of his life.

After an attention-grabbing introduction, we learn that the masked bandit, Cassidy (Sierra Capri), is a schoolmate of Brandon’s. Cassidy is in the mold of Melanie Griffith’s Lulu from Something Wild: a sexually liberated delinquent, unencumbered by typical teenage obligations — she mostly wanders the hallways of school but doesn’t appear to actually attend classes — who’s also inexplicably obsessed with Brandon. Popping up unannounced at Brandon’s house to return the wallet she took from him, stocking his fridge with food, and getting him to stay out all night so they can cruise the Hollywood hills in her convertible blasting 80’s pop, Cassidy is less a person than a collection of incongruous, movie dream-girl traits, the type of female character seemingly designed in a lab to draw uptight men out of their shells and give in to their rebellious streaks while possessing no pesky inner lives themselves. She encourages Brandon to work out his frustrations by wailing on her cherry-red BMW with a golf club, gets him to cut class so they can go watch a Lena Horne film at a repertory theater, and, as far as his financial troubles… she has a solution for that too.

One spends a small eternity waiting for this film to acknowledge the lack of tonal consistency or how Cassidy (whose fashion sense falls somewhere between Clueless and an exotic dancer) and her behavior clashes with the comparatively grounded drama of Brandon and his family. So, for a good long while, Young. Wild. Free. simply splits the difference between earnest realism (i.e., Brandon and Janice fighting over money, Lamont, and whether she’ll resume seeing her therapist) and fantastical, wish-fulfillment nonsense. While it makes for an inharmonious union, morbid curiosity at how Banks might land this plane sustains the film for longer than it should by all rights.

To the film’s slight credit, there is ultimately a reason for Cassidy’s “extraness.” But getting into what that is falls squarely within spoiler territory. One can say, however, that it hinges on the hoariest of twists (presumably this is the actual reason Cassidy incessantly references film bro staples from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s) — the sort of narrative device that, even when done well, rarely plays fair with the audience and almost always feels like a betrayal of any goodwill the film might have engendered up to that point. Likewise, here the revelation has a crippling effect, leaving several substantial plot threads dangling (including a murder that Brandon participates in as part of a breaking and entry gone awry) so it can engage in touchy-feely psychobabble while forcing the viewer to play back in their heads half-a-dozen scenes that, upon reflection, make absolutely no sense. Reconciling the two modes that this film employs was always going to be a tall order, but the solution that Young. Wild. Free. arrives at feels deeply cynical, radiating backwards and negatively coloring everything we’d seen up to that point. While providing an explanation for why nothing was passing the smell test (as well as clarifying some of the more curious visual motifs), it only confirms all the worst suspicions about the filmmaker.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4.