Zombies, aliens, mysterious diseases, and natural disasters: these are the elements that most frequently drive the post-apocalyptic narratives dominating our movies, TV shows, and video games. It can seem monotonous, as their similarities begin to blend together, but Jovanka Vuckovic’s feature debut, Riot Girls, succeeds in separating itself from the mould, with a hard rock survival tale that feels like something The CW could produce at their full potential.
Riot Girls is introduced cleverly through a comic strip, walking the audience through the aftermath of a mysterious disease that decimated the fictional mid-’90s town of Potter’s Bluff, with all parents succumbing to the disease. What’s left of the town is split in two: a battleground between the town’s children.
Death to the patriarchy is something we often express a desire for, and when it finally comes, we imagine that an anarchic town would thrive under its freedom, but screenwriter Katherine Collins demonstrates that the cycle of the hierarchy is doomed to repeat itself. The town is split into East and West, poor and rich, with the rich of the West believing they are the strongest and most powerful of the two. The environments in which both live are not unlike what you would see in a world still alive. The streets of the poor East are neglected, littered with trash and lined with abandoned cars, while the West somehow remains untouched, with the suburban homes of white privileged still standing.
The West is Titan territory. A group of football jocks rule with an iron fist under the leadership of Jeremy (Munro Chambers), varsity captain and the oldest kid in town. The Titans are violent and murderous, an authoritarian state run like an army. Invitation to join the ranks has to be earned through skills in martial arts. They live comfortably, protected by the walls of their old high school. Unlike the East, where its inhabitants live like squatters, but take in anyone and band together to survive on their wits.
The film’s “Riot Girls” are two of these East side outcasts. Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski) is the tough, hardcore punk, while her girlfriend, Nat (Madison Iseman), is the more level-headed of the two. Lesbians in horror have been making a resurgence of late with films like Thelma and What Keeps You Alive, and Riots Girls joins the group with the deafening sound of a muscle car engine and the pulsating energy of rock—“Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett plays in the background. This is a new generation of girls that can do what they want to do. “Eat the Rich” is etched on the back of Nat’s killer leather. They’re badass.
The conflict of the narrative comes when Nat’s brother, Jack, gets taken by the Titans after he murders a pair for supplies. Nat and Scratch make their way into enemy territory to rescue him with the help of friends and newfound Western allies, who are equally as sick of the Titan suppression. They must infiltrate the high school and face the villain Jeremy, who is overcome by power, with Chambers possessing the perfect degree of anger and malice.
In their quest, tensions rise between Nat and Scratch as the pressure of their mission heats up. Iseman and Kwiatkowski both deliver affecting performances as their characters face emotional battles, which is matched with the right physicality for their bloody ones. Collins reveals great insights into their characters and relationships, something that could have easily been glossed over.
Riot Girls doesn’t produce as much violence or action as desired, but the film makes the most of its short runtime and delivers an outcome that is satisfying for the gay avengers of the apocalypse who don’t give a damn about their bad reputation.
Movie Score: 4/5