Judge Eric Profancik has decided that some people deserve to be unknown, like the ones in this indie film.
"Story is dead. Image rules!"
The Charge above is a line bellowed by our lead character in the first act of The Young Unknowns. I feel that statement not only captures the essence of all the characters but also nicely encapsulates the finished result of the movie itself. I'm really trying to be more open-minded and accepting of independent fare, yet I find most indie films not to be my cup of tea. A few have enticed and intrigued me, but usually I am bored or just don't care about the subject matter. That's my dilemma here. While the director has assembled a good film with a nice style and filled it with some nice acting, I just don't care for the pathetic people who inhabit this film.
Facts of the Case
It's another day in L.A., and Charlie (Devon Gummersall, My So-Called Life) jumps into the pool for a quick swim. In the other room, Paloma (Arly Jover, Blade) wakes up. As the two lounge by the pool, Charlie's friend Joe (Eion Bailey, Almost Famous) calls and soon thereafter stops by the house with a girlfriend, Cassandra (Leslie Bibb, See Spot Run). We learn that Charlie's dad is in London, and Charlie hopes to soon join him; for dad is a power player in the commercial biz and Charlie wants in. But as the day languidly unfolds, Charlie's life will change. He'll face great tragedy involving both friends and family, and this rather unassuming day will transform everything and reveal the real Charlie.
Let's start out with the title of this movie and what it means. According to the packaging, the term "young unknowns" refers to "the twenty-something ruling underbelly of Los Angeles." Interesting. A ruling underbelly sounds somewhat cool—it has potential, theoretically. But it turns out not to be that cool or laden with potential. If Charlie, Joe, and maybe Paloma are meant to personify these young, powerful kids in L.A., then this movie missed the mark. I have no idea what "a young unknown" is (was) really like, but I can't imagine these characters fill the bill, because Charlie and Joe are two of the saddest, most aimless, lost, dismal souls in cinema. I believe a natural and safe assumption is that young unknowns would be charismatic, charming, and manipulative hip persons, but that's not what we find in this film.
So who is Charlie, and why don't I see him as a young unknown? Charlie is a lost soul. He has goals, he probably has potential, but he has problems that are haunting him. These past problems are holding him back and leading him to make all the wrong choices in his life. At the forefront of bad choices is his relationship with Joe. Joe is a lousy friend and brings out the worst in Charlie. While Charlie and Paloma have a relaxing spell by the pool, Charlie's a nice, normal guy; but when Joe calls, Charlie's entire persona changes. He puts on an act that he thinks helps him fit in better with Joe. In reality, Charlie is a wholesome, clean-cut young man; yet around Joe, as Paloma so eloquently (and bluntly) states, "you act black." Trying to infuse some thug into his character and hanging around Joe have helped turn this lazy day into the worst day of Charlie's life.
Is it actually Charlie's fault that he acts this way? No. Abandonment issues about both his mother and father influence every move of his life. He's trapped by them, but he doesn't realize this. Any true opportunity to break free and make a smart start is quickly thwarted by the demons he doesn't know how to handle. Poor Charlie; he really could use some therapy and some new friends.
Taking off my psychologist's cap, all of this really doesn't make The Young Unknowns an interesting film for me. Most of this character insight came after I finished watching the film, as I pondered the material. While I watched the movie, I simply detested Charlie—and Joe even more so. They were horrible creatures with whom you would not want to associate, let alone watch on the big screen. I didn't feel much sympathy for them, especially once the Cassandra situation comes to bear. While the men…boys…dangerous adolescents in the film evoke unpleasant emotions, there is sympathy for Paloma and Cassandra. Paloma has issues of her own, and we're not certain why she's with Charlie. It's a tortured relationship, and you hope she will do better. Cassandra is simply a young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. We could only hope she will learn her lesson and make smarter choices.
Not all is lost in The Young Unknowns; as both writer and director, Catherine Jelski has better success with the latter role than the former. Jelski's direction of this film is impressive, putting forth a style that sets it apart from other indie films I've watched. I can always tell when I'm watching an independent film, but that is missing here, since Jelski is adept and capable with her ideas. She avoids all the clichés and "established" styles and crafts a quality work to call her own. The icing on the cake for Jelski and The Young Unknowns is the excellent acting she's able to get from her young cast. Every performance is believable and nuanced, with great emotion and power lurking behind each person. I may not have liked what the characters were doing, but the actors did it well. Mix that in with some quality cinematography, and too bad there wasn't a story I liked more, for The Young Unknowns has great potential.
Though the directing and acting may belie the indie roots of this film, you'll see them more easily when you pop this disc into your player. The 1.85:1 anamorphic print is far from reference quality, with an overall hazy look, soft details, and some dirt on top of a muted palette. It all comes together to form a print that's lacking that bite of realism in most DVDs today. Your only audio option is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that is simply fine for the movie. I had no trouble with the dialogue, as there's no hiss or distortion, but I did think a nice 5.1 mix would have been good for all the music used throughout. My copy of the DVD does show an English subtitle track, but it either wasn't there or was broken, as the subtitles never came on.
A few bonus items are available for your viewing pleasure. First up is an audio commentary by Catherine Jelski and director of cinematography Gabor Szitanyi. While not a fan of the film, I very much enjoyed their (actually, it's mostly Jelski's) discussion. This track was highly insightful and informative, and it did help me put my overall distaste for the film into perspective. You'll definitely want to listen to this one. Next up is the award-winning short film Ladies Room. This 14-minute piece is simply a conglomeration of vignettes of tweens and young women doing a variety of things in the bathroom. Inventive, unique, and interesting, I enjoyed this film…except for the drill sergeant bit. The last item of note is "Origin of a Poster" (four minutes) in which poster designer Adam Waldman talks about the evolution of the one-sheets and package design. Also included are trailers for Face, Fabled, A Wake in Providence, and Solitude.
I must note that when the disc starts up, you cannot skip, fast-forward, stop, or in anyway bypass the various company logos and the trailer for Face. This is extremely annoying.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Is it time for me to put on my prude hat and condemn the semi-glamorization and acceptance of drug use? Maybe I should instead talk about the lucky coincidence when Charlie picks up the ever-ringing telephone the one time that Joe calls. Nope. Those are minor quibbles.
Despite all my prattling and psychobabble, it's highly possible—and quite likely—that I have no idea what I'm talking about. In the end, while I liked the style, the direction, the cinematography, and the acting, I did not care for the characters and their story. For those in the business or in the L.A. area, The Young Unknowns truly may be the "21st-century Less Than Zero" or "the film Hurlyburly wanted to be." But out here in the boring Midwest where all that Hollywood lingo is a lot of gibberish, it doesn't mean all that much to me. Surprisingly, despite all that I've said, I'm giving this one a cautious recommendation—only for Jelski's direction and the great acting. Maybe you'll see more in the story than I.
The Young Unknowns is hereby found guilty of some unknown crime.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Indican Pictures
• Audio Commentary
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