Brianna Zigler in praise of Never Goin’ Back; a refreshing portrayal of gross girls, of degenerate teenagedom, and the need for depictions of female adolescence that are hard to look at.
“I wonder how many guys have to worry about their boxers being stolen by creepy perverts at the laundromat.”
“None, I’m sure.”
“No, obviously not, and yet this is still real-life shit we have to worry about when we wanna wash our clothes.”
When I was 14, the best jokes were the ones about cocks. Taking a picture of yourself holding a box of Trojan condoms and a nose hair trimmer in the grocery store got laughs that would last for the rest of the night. A Rite Aid pharmacy was only good for a blast of cooling A/C on a hot day in the suburbs – well, that, and effortless shoplifting too. In the summer heat, wearing short shorts long since outlawed from public school, I snuck glances over my shoulder to make sure older men weren’t following us, while my friends and I indulged in our stolen spoils and wondered what it was like to actually use a dildo instead of just talking about one. We’d ride our bikes to the makeshift skate park down the street from my house, the one that the stoners halfheartedly constructed from planks of wood and mounds of dirt, and we’d sit and laugh and sniff at the same lingering scent of weed that we’d be inhaling in just a few years time.
Texan filmmaker Augustine Frizzell and her debut feature Never Goin’ Back want you to understand that this is real-life shit. They want you to understand that before you’re five minutes into the film, you’ll see tampons and panties strewn about an unkempt bedroom, and even before that you’ll have already seen two girls draw dicks on each other’s faces, threaten to pee on the other in a golden shower, and snap bent-over, laptop butt selfies complete with a “fuck you” middle finger. The degenerate teenage heroines at the very heart of the film, Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone), are not going to be sanitized for your viewing pleasure. They’re gonna talk about dicks, they’re gonna get sweaty and stoned, and say lines like, “when I see a couple like that, all I can think about is that at some point in her life, he had a boner and she let him put it in her”. An entire plotline is going to revolve around the unending need to take a shit. Teenage girls are going to get raunchy in Never Goin’ Back, because that’s how they are in real life.
The film captures a niche of adolescent girldom that I’d never realized was missing from films I’d seen, until I became too used to its absence. It’s the fact that being a teenage girl doesn’t always look like embodying the quiet underdog, or fighting the good fight with your best friend, or being likeable in a way that’s “different from other girls”. It’s not always about being soft and sweet, or often misunderstood, as it feels like we’ve seen from films too many times in the past. While a film like Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is groundbreaking in its examination and celebration of the awkwardness that often plagues teen girls during, perhaps, the most vulnerable time in their lives, or Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird in the way it highlights the beautiful ugliness that goes hand in hand with mother-daughter relationships establishing an identity in high school, Never Goin’ Back uncovers what’s even harder to look at than acne blotches or heart-tugging shouting matches: young women are allowed to be their disgusting selves, and that they’re nonetheless still human for it.
Calling Never Goin’ Back the “female Superbad” is an exercise in understanding that men were allowed to be gross in films long before women were. “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man”, Matthew McConnaughey croons in the cult hit Dazed and Confused, “I get older, they stay the same age”. An oft-quoted classic line that now feels skincrawingly creepy in retrospect, it’s further testament to how some films have chosen to view teenage girls – through an overwhelmingly purified and/or sexualized lens. While films like Eighth Grade and Lady Bird afford young women a portrayal of much-needed humanity, Never Goin’ Back offers that same window of compassion, packaged up in a glass bong and a bag of cocaine. The boys of Superbad were allowed this almost a decade earlier, and after such a film that features a mostly male cast, viewing its ladies as pined-after trophies, it’s a wonder it took so long for a story like Never Goin’ Back to truly challenge it.
Let teen girls agonize over vomit and shit, and it is more than an easy route to seat-squirming and gross-out laughs – it is allowing young women a certain level of vulnerability that is natural to all humans, and yet still not necessarily seen as feminine. Coming to terms with the fact that we are shitting and puking vessels of flesh is made both comfortable and accessible through comedy; by being able to laugh at our own embarrassing human nature, we reclaim power over it. However, as being gross is not traditionally seen as a feminine quality, men have reaped most of the reward by controlling this realm of comedy for too long. Audiences must accept and enjoy it when boys to talk about jizz and piss (boys will be boys?), while letting girls linger at the sidelines and either giggle or scrunch up their noses, but never engage with it.
This new wave of female coming-of-age films serves as a cornucopia of necessary, varying depictions on what it means to grow up as a girl – Never Goin’ Back simply offers another dish in the current banquet of feminine perspectives. Angela and Jessie are not just alternatives to the boys of Superbad, but vital characterizations of real girls simply existing as they already do, by way of bending worn-out gender archetypes. Being gross in Never Goin’ Back is less about shock value, but a disavowing of socially accepted attitudes, allowing us to get closer to these two girls through their own brazen, humanizing vulnerability. We don’t have to have lived as Angela and Jessie to understand that we are all Angela and Jessie, and if they can laugh at themselves for things that are about as natural to one gender as to any other, than the rest of us can too. After being told for most of our lives to “act like a lady”, Never Goin’ Back reminds us that we don’t fucking have to.
Words: Brianna Zigler