No one walks into a stoner film expecting to leave feeling warm and fuzzy, but Augustine Frizzell’s first feature Never Goin’ Back is like a relaxing contact high.
Model Camila (aka Cami) Morrone, 21, who recently plunged into acting full-time and Australian actress Maia Mitchell, 24, whose previous screen credits are the epitome of PG, make a charming pair as foul-mouthed high school dropouts Jessie and Angela. Their troubles begin in good faith: Angela spends the savings from their waitressing jobs on a birthday present for Jessie—a trip to Galveston Beach in Texas—only to find out that Jessie’s brother (newbie actor Joel Allen) has spent everyone’s rent money on a botched drug deal.
While the latest A24 enterprise has many of the tropes we’ve come to expect from a teen-centric stoner comedy—unwitting consumption of edibles, projectile vomit—there are plenty we don’t, including palpable financial hardship, the easy depiction of fluid sexuality, and a beautifully poignant female friendship.
Jessie’s brother and his guy friends and their foolish hijinks remain forever in the background, serving as a reminder that this movie is unequivocally not about boys—in fact, there’s no cute-boy love interest to speak of, nor a single heteronormative kissing scene. It’s based on Frizzell’s own experience as a young woman in Dallas, making destructive choices with her BFF as a means of entertainment in what she calls the “cultural desert,” having fun while doing it, and, through a combination of privilege and luck, coming out on the other side unscathed.
As the 39-year-old director tells it, that construct doesn’t bode well for everyone. “I didn't expect the vitriol and how people are just mad about it,” Frizzell says of the critical reaction. “I just thought maybe you'd think it was dumb and unfunny but I didn't think you'd be pissed off that the women are behaving this way.”
To her point, sexist undertones permeate every negative review of Never Goin' Back. One critic goes so far as to say there’s “a real danger in perpetuating this type of teenage girl,” another refers to a scene of Jessie and Angela getting slut shamed by an old man as “self-inflicted humiliation.”
Similarly, long-time movie critic Todd McCarthy, for his review of Never Goin' Back in The Hollywood Reporter, writes “first-time writer-director Augustine Frizzell makes it a fierce competition as to which characters are the most moronic: Angela and Maia [ed note: we assume he meant Angela and Jessie], whose every other word is the f-word,” labeling the lead characters “hormonally supercharged” when the most ass they get is a makeout scene with each other. In the privacy of their own home.
Consider for comparison the language used in reviews of Greg Mottola’s hit movie Superbad , whose plot is premised on two teen boys trying to get laid at a party, dropping f-bombs, and committing crimes with no consequences. Years earlier the same critic wrote for Variety, “Seth (younger Rogen clone Jonah Hill), is a motor-mouthed fatso born with an over-supply of vulgar bravado. Best friend Evan...is thinner, taller and more presentable, but equally keen to get a little experience in the saddle before heading off for college.”
The exact cussing that makes Angela and Jessie moronic is quickly dimissed to be innate “vulgar bravado” when Seth does it, while Seth and Evan's central sleazeball mission of bedding girls so drunk they don’t realize who they’re banging is euphemized into an admirable film plot, instead of being called out for the danger of perpetuating this type of teenage boy. McCarthy goes on to call Superbad’s star ladies Emma Stone and Martha MacIsaac “accessibly human and nothing like the snotty ‘whatever’ bimbos so often seen in such fare.”
Yet ask a woman for her critical opinion and she may tell you that Stone’s Superbad character is “even less likely representing a real, live girl,” than any Judd Apatow film with female leads so unrealistic that they could only have come from the male imagination.
Perhaps that’s the issue: Most people don’t know what an “accessibly human” woman looks like because so few women are depicted in their full humanity on the big screen. Certainly Frizzell’s film represents only a specific demographic (white, beautiful) and everyone is entitled to dislike it, but Never Goin' Back should be judged on the same merits as every non-moralizing dude flick of the same genre—not on how it jives with what we think we know about women.
Below, we speak to Frizzell and Morrone about all of the above.
JG: Cami, what attracted you to the role of Jessie?
CM: I am someone who has always loved comedies and I'm a big fan of Thelma and Louise, and Superbad, and Pineapple Express and fun stoner comedies, and I had never seen a female version. So when I read the script I thought it was super fun, I loved the dynamic between Jessie and Angela, and I really felt like this hasn't been shown in this light for a female. And as a big comedy fan myself, I was laughing throughout reading the script, and laughing while making it and filming it.
There are a lot of challenging moments. There's a scene where Maia and I get high out of our minds and there's a scene where I have an incident in the closet, so all those things, as an actor, are in my opinion, challenging moments I've never played before. So I decided to take that on. I was nervous as to how I would be portrayed, but I try to do anything that makes me a little nervous.
JG: Did it help to have a female director on set?
CM: I have worked with both female and male directors and I’ve had really great experiences with both. Augustine, Maia and I have great chemistry. This was Augustine’s story we were telling. But, Maia and I were able to interpret certain things in our own way that we think the characters would say. There were a lot of women on set. Our DP was also female, it just makes it an a lot more comfortable, easy environment.
JG: Augustine, since this film is based on your life, did you feel when you were growing up that having fluid sexual relationships, dressing a certain way, experimenting with drugs, was all taboo?
AF: In that town where I grew up, I think there’s a certain facet of society where the drug doing is kind of a way of life. I think when you’re from a town like that and when you have no money, no access to art, culture, or adults that want to lift you up and help you become a better person, you’re kind of lost. So what do you do? You find ways to entertain yourself, and most of those ways are destructive. The more people who’ve seen the movie and talked to me about it, they’re like, “I grew up in a small town in Australia! That’s what we did!” Maia talked to me about this the other day, “We used to put a mattress in the back of a pickup truck and go hangout and do drugs in a field because you don’t have anything else to do.” And so, I think it’s kind of expected in that way.
On the broader scale, showing teenagers doing drugs is definitely controversial and I haven’t demonized it either. I haven’t placed judgement on them. You’re just seeing them in their element doing their thing, and I think some people expect me to have an angle. Like, “Can we see the consequences of this behavior, and why didn’t you show that?” They’re clearly going down the wrong path, but I feel like that is an exception that’s placed on these characters for a number of reasons. One, they’re young. They’re female, and they’re poor. So, as soon as you put poor people in a situation like this, they’re judged so much more harshly. You can take the boys from Superbad, I keep taking this an example, but they’re doing just as dumb of shit.
They’re messing up left and right, they’re sexualixing girls, they’re talking about dicks, they’re cussing, they’re committing crimes. But, it’s okay to laugh it off because they’re young white guys with a promising future of college and they have a stable home life and plenty of money. As soon as poor people are doing it, it’s like, “Hey! Now, shouldn’t you be doing something to better your shitty situation in life?” You can’t watch them with the same removed humor that you can watch middle class white kids from the suburbs. Yes they’re young, attractive, white girls, but there’s still a double standard.
JG: How do you stay grounded when you hear feedback about the art that you’ve done? How do you take that criticism and manage it?
AF: I stress eat a lot! I’ve gained a lot of weight since the movie’s come out. I do think about it. I think about how it affects me and what I’ll do in the future. I think about decisions that I’ve made, I think about how can we address this in terms of art. I think about to what degree do I have a responsibility to address this? Do I need to consider these things when I make art? Because art essentially is a form of self expression and if we’re letting other people’s outside influences determine the way we’re expressing ourselves is it doing a disservice to the art? Is it creatively fulfilling? I don’t know, I do a lot of thinking and I do a lot of reading. I discuss it with my friends, it’s been interesting. Cami, how’s that been for you? I’m sure you’ve been reading the reviews, what are your thoughts on that?
CM: You know what, I actually don’t read reviews. People that have seen it aren’t coming up to me and saying that they didn’t like it. So, in my experience I’ve just noticed that in other films, I have gotten my feelings hurt or gotten defensive while reading reviews, so I try to not even go there. Obviously for the director it’s different because maybe there are constructive things that could be beneficial but, I just feel like once your work is done in the movie there’s nothing you can do to change it back or change anything. It’s kind of like the actor has to surrender. But people I love and I have a lot relationships in the movie industry, my mother was in the industry, my father is in the industry, when they watch it they know me so well, they’re able to give me ideas or maybe tell me moments that they like or didn’t like as much. All that stuff kind of helps.
JG: There are things to dissect in Never Goin' Back, but overall, films by and about women are scrutinized in a way that films by and about men are not. That may also because we've had so few female filmmakers actually given a platform for telling their stories, so people don't think women behave in this way because they're not exposed to stories of women who do.
AF: Yes! On a whole range of levels. Some women just hug. Some women, like me and my best friends, we did have sex—regularly—and it was never a deal that we had to define. We didn't have to label it. And I think that if we did see that happening more in films, that we would be able to look at a movie like this and be like “oh yeah I've seen that,” and could immediately register a familiarity with these characters and follow along and enjoy the movie. But it's not something people are used to seeing because of the lack of female filmmakers, so it takes them out of the movie. It's like hey, wait I don't recognize this, so you're sitting here in judgement of these people whereas with those boys from Superbad, you immediately get who they are. We've seen this a hundred times, we know it, we are familiar with it, now we can laugh and go along with the story.
JG: When women say something no one believes us, but we are sitting here as women telling you our truth. Just take it at face value.
AF: It's mansplaining.
JG: Who are some of your creative influences that you draw from?
AF: I am a huge fan of a ton of filmmakers, some of my favorites—I love Chantal Akerman—I have all of these filmmakers I love and specific pieces from various films of their work. I love Paul Thomas Anderson, the Cohen brothers, Anges Varda, Lina Wertmueller as controversial as she is I just think her films are interesting and a unique perspective. I love Zadie Smith, I think she’s just so smart, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman, I really like Mike Leigh. I like a lot of filmmakers.
JG: Cami, who inspires you?
CM: I have kind of a random selection of inspirations. I watch a lot of really really old films from the 1930’s and 40’s out of those people it would be Vivian Lee], Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn. And skipping a couple of generations, today I love Jessica Chastain, I think Emma Stone is immensely talented, Jennifer Lawrence, Emily Blunt, if you open the door to that I could give you like a hundred words and up. It’s [also] just incredible being in acting classes with actresses that aren’t well known and are still struggling and trying to book work. There’s such talent in an acting class that you’re like, “How have you not won an Oscar already?! How are you not successful?” It’s really, it’s so much, so many women out there in the industry.