Never Goin’ Back (2018)
Written & Directed by Augustine Frizzell
Angela and Jessie dropped out of high school and are killing time in their small southern Texas town until they turn eighteen and can escape. In the meantime, they’re stuck living with Jessie’s brother Dustin and his sleazy roommate Brandon. Their day jobs have them waiting tables at a local family eatery where they constantly dodge unemployment despite coming to work high or drunk. Through a series of interconnected vignettes, the young women experience highs and lows, both of the economic and pharmacological types. Throughout they remain devoted to each other and attempt to find some joy despite the loss. Always looming somewhere far up ahead is an escape to the beach and to see the ocean.
Never Goin’ Back is a film that has one foot very firmly in our present era and another foot entrenched in the classic cinema of poverty. The former is seen in the way the film addresses the ever-looming menace of men for young women. There is no male love interest or prince charming type waiting in the wings. Dustin is a loser; his friends are equal in their loserdom, Brandon is a leering pervert, older men are judgmental pricks. The only point of light is their boss at the Buttermilk Cafe. He tries to overlook their chronic tardiness and intoxication in the workplace but finds they are reaching his limits. He’s not a cliche movie boss but one with true empathy whom we completely agree with when the girls cross the line.
For all its modern conceits like a focus on two young women, a celebration of their friendship and sexuality (complete with gross-out humor), Never Goin’ Back is part of a long tradition of poverty-focused cinema, particularly in comedy. Think back to the classics of Charlie Chaplin with The Kid, Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and City Lights. These are features with a protagonist who is living in a state of economic struggle that it’s made clear they are not going to escape within the walls of the runtime of this film. However, within these movies, our hero can experience moments of brief escape or a small joyful delight. The Little Tramp often one-ups and shows figures of authority and pomposity to be huge asses. They are hoisted by their own petard, so the saying goes.
Never Goin’ Back is most definitely a film with these tropes in mind. Brandon works the counter at a local sub sandwich shop and is continually giving them away to secure a position of “coolness” to his friends. The girls take full advantage of this when they need some food after falling on hard times. At one point the girls are robbed and call the police only to have their drug paraphernalia discovered and find themselves in jail for a couple of days. In the meantime, the robber (who was a friend of the brother’s) has made up with Dustin, and the two are paling around when the girls make bail. The girls need to wash their work uniforms but end up sidetracked at a friend’s house party where they use his washing machine. Making a promise to avoid vices of any kind while they are there the audience knows something bad will happen and the duo will find themselves dealing with the effects of something they imbibed or smoked. The structures and comedic beats are classic if you know your film history and are paying attention.
We don’t see poverty on the big screen in comedies much anymore. The majority of comedies and films, in general, seek to present economically comfortable to financially decadent characters. The people and families we see in wide release cinema are rarely an honest reflection of the realities of our present day. Take Judd Apatow’s stoner comedies for instance. Despite the character inhaling gratuitous amounts of weed they are always highly successful and never have conversations about struggling to pay rent or deal with repo men. However, for a broad swath of America drugs and alcohol are a way to escape from a pretty soul-crushing day to day grind. What makes me love Never Goin Back, even more, is that our protagonists, who are living this money doldrum existence, are high school aged Millenials. If ever there was a generation that was living parallel to the Great Depression era waifs and tramps of Chaplin’s day it is the young people of our own. Never Goin’ Back has rough edges and is not apologetic for what it is, and that will likely turn off a big chunk of the audience. However, if you allow yourself to go with the flow, I believe you’ll find a very charming and urgent movie.