Review of Age Out
by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.
At the world premiere of Age Out (originally titled Friday’s Child )at SXSW 2018, I became somewhat annoyed with the question and answer session that followed the screening. As typical at these festivals, fans often stick with safe questions about technique rather than dive into deeper issues raised by the story. Instead of exploring the meanings behind the film, those asking questions that night seemed more interested in talking about aspect ratios and camera lenses. For this viewer, the film triggered some dark memories, and as such, the movie was unusually visceral.
Be assured; this is a sensory film. The movie demonstrates the creative talent of director A.J. Edwards, more or less a prodigy of the legendary Terrence Malick. Yes, most of the film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the simple titles are reminiscent of a Dragnet episode. This look was purposefully crafted, providing a sense of confinement not possible in widescreen. Likewise, with the retro look, it is hard to sense a satisfying future—we find ourselves stuck in the cycle.
The stark experience enhances the crisis found in the plot, which can now lead me away from exploring the wonders of the film craft and examining the more profound message found in the story. Others can continue to discuss Edward’s style—I will not be surprised; assuredly, critics will be talking about him more often from here on out.
However, due to personal experience, this reviewer cannot help but focus on the plot. The story fits well into the overall theme that emerged from the collection of films screened at SXSW 2018—broken families, abandoned and troubled kids. Emerging young actor Tye Sheridan plays Richie, an 18-year old who times out of Texas's foster care system. His birthday means that the state is no longer obliged to provide a family for the kid.
It becomes apparent that Richie has not had a good go in the system. He seems to both relish and fear the opportunity to try life on his own. Initially, he finds a construction job and meager housing in a distressed Waco neighborhood. Quickly, the efforts required to avoid all the pitfalls of life in this environment begin to wear down the young man.
Richie is a character who will evoke strong empathy. He seems to be a sweet kid, but we soon find out he is not innocent. There is plenty of blame to go around, but Richie makes some painfully bad decisions. One choice is to hang out with an older boy named Swim. Caleb Landry Jones plays this fascinating character with the same deranged kineticism imposed by Heath Ledger when channeling the Joker in the Dark Knight. This criminal-minded young adult takes Richie under his wing, but his sort of mentorship is not what Richie needs at this time and place in his life.
The movie's original title, Friday’s Child, evokes imagery from the familiar English poem "Monday’s Child." As you watch the film, consider which characters represent the Wednesday’s and Friday’s children in the verse. Edwards also admitted that his screenplay is based loosely on Fedor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. With this knowledge, I dare not provide any more spoilers; let us call this a tragedy that ends with a glimmer of hope, and it is the source of this hope that is most profound.
Any parent watching this film will agonize over the idea of their own barely-adult child entering such a world. Let me confirm from my own experience that this kind of abandonment is fertile ground for many bad things to happen. On my own the last half of my senior year in high school, I lived in a nearly-condemned house with no furniture. By the grace of God, I survived, but adulthood came upon this naive teenager like a sharp slap in the face. I have many regrets about my life during the six months I was on my own before moving into a college dorm. I was just 17 years old.
Overall, Age Out evokes three important truths about abandoned or lost children in a postmodern milieu. (Admittedly, some of this stems from my experience as a teenager on my own.) The first is that children who are abandoned to the streets hurt themselves and hurt others. With some, it is a matter of fierce pride and independence that sets them on this rocky road—a rebellion against the very structures that protect them. For others, perhaps like Richie, it is fate—a spiral of deepening bad luck. In either case, the paradox is confounding—these may not be bad kids, but they are certainly capable (dare I say likely?) of doing bad things. The spiral deepens because few have the means, the character, or the will to reverse the course. I was simply lucky in this regard. Despite my bad choices, I found friends in college who helped me escape—but it took several years to break the cycle completely, and, regrettably, I left damage in my wake.
Secondly, a kid can hardly make it right out of high school on their own, even if they get a diploma or GED and work diligently in the jobs they can get. Few are prepared with the skills and experience to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. The pressures and temptations of the world cruelly erode any hope that a special kid can buck the odds and double these problems when these same teens get pregnant. If the kid’s parents can provide shelter, they have a chance—but this arrangement can wreck the entire family if it was already weak. In any circumstance, these kids need someone or something to hold them accountable to honor the ways that make survival possible.
Thirdly, kids easily find the wrong kind of companionship on the street. Young people can be painfully idealistic, and as such, they quickly rationalize their choices. They may find a way forward, but the act often—too often—becomes the very thing that makes matters worse. What looks good on the surface ends up hurting them and leaves the kid more troubled than before. While not an excuse, one should understand how the innocent-but desperate will follow a shape-shifting pied piper who seems to have all the answers. Just remember, these kids have few alternatives.
Watch this wonderful film and weep for Richie and all the kids on the street—regardless of how they got there. Enjoy the filmmaker’s techniques, but use them to take you deeper into the story. Think about Richie the next time you see one of these young people on the street hustling some scam or in your neighborhood selling questionable products or door to door. Or perhaps they have become invisible—you may not see them at all. In any case, consider why our support systems cannot stop them from hurting themselves and what best course of action you can take to become part of the solution. If you become motivated, one helpful step is to learn more. Check out the Upbring organization for more background on the problem and for ways you can get involved.
Note: As the reviewer, I must disclose my bias in that I had a couple of minor roles in the production, and I consider the former CEO of Upbring to be a close friend.