In a disturbing scene toward the end of acclaimed short-film director Andrew T. Betzer’s debut feature,Young Bodies Heal Quickly, a bearded old man tells a buzz cut-sporting boy, “History, good or bad, can’t hurt you.” The irony of the statement becomes increasingly apparent as we learn that this man (Daniel. P. Jones)—a salesman of Nazi memorabilia and participant in Vietnam reenactments—is the nameless boy’s (Hale Lytle) father and that this odd compound on the shore is the last stop on the journey that makes up most of the film. If this ragged and wild bearded man is your last hope, then things are pretty fucked and history can hurt you plenty.
But moral calculation is not the boy’s strong suit. The trip begins as the young boy and his also unnamed older brother (played with a horrifying blankness by Gabriel Croft) hide in the woods watching two girls ride four-wheelers. The younger brother seems to be about 11 or 12 and the older about 17—but mentally, the older boy appears to be stunted, wearing a helmet on his head that makes him seem both disabled and dangerous. It becomes apparent that part of his slowness is caused by the beer he constantly swills, but this is not much of a consolation.
Soon, the boys run out of their hiding place and start chasing the girls. The older brother and the girls start fighting, and it’s hard to tell if they are serious or if it is some form of barbaric play. The young boy seems to share this confusion as he wildly shuffles around the edge of the skirmish until, possibly drawn in by rough erotic violence, he enters the fray with a quick parry—thrusting out a baseball bat, which hits one of the girls in the head and kills her. The other girl, followed shortly thereafter by the older brother, runs off to the woods. The boy stands there, dazed. His brother comes back to get him.
It seems at this point as if the film will be about crime and punishment. The constable investigates—only to throw away the evidence. A woman—apparently the boys’ mother—helps them leave town. The rest of the film follows their picaresque adventures toward their father’s weird compound. The reason for the trip is never mentioned again, as the largely silent boys live solely in the present, drifting around the edges of Maryland, where Betzer grew up.
It’s easy to compare Young Bodies Heal Quickly with Gummo, the super-twisted 1997 Harmony Korine flick about two boys who shoot cats to trade them for glue to sniff with the owner of a Chinese restaurant. There are plenty of surface similarities: Both films follow two kids adrift whom most of the world would call “white trash.” But Betzer’s kids could go back to Faulkner’s Sarty Snopes in “Barn Burning” or Francis Marion Tarwater in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor’s title would, in fact, fit this film as well as its own, equally wordy name. But like the kids in Gummo, these boys are rural but not Southern. They probably listen to Eminem and heavy metal. They wouldn’t be out of place in old-school Hampden with their long white T-shirts and buzz cuts.
Despite the murder he commits, the younger boy is possessed of a kind of tenderness that his older brother entirely lacks. He needs something—love—but fails to find it. When they stop off at a sister’s house, she wants nothing to do with them. There is a seemingly sweet interlude in Ocean City, where the brothers meet a French woman (Julie Sokolowski). When she spends a day goofing around with the younger brother on the boardwalk, it is painfully clear how starved for affection he is. But the woman will provide no real comfort for him. I won’t say what happens here, because it is one of the few points in this film where a spoiler might matter—but it’s not good. Young Bodies is not driven by plot or psychology but by atmosphere. The title comes to seem like an ironic slap in the face as the movie rushes to depict a world in which there is no healing, no reckoning at all.
No great beauty emerges from the pain or the listless drifting or hopeless ennui either. This is where Gummocomparisons fall flat. The aesthetic quality of Young Bodies is far bleaker. Gummo is lifted by the transcendently gorgeous moment where some girls jump on a trampoline and the boys shoot at cats in the pouring rain to the sound of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” It is one of the most grimly beautiful moments in any film. Betzer doesn’t so much fail to deliver such a moment as choose not to. He also avoids almost all explanation. In Korine’s film, we can blame everything on a tornado. But in Young Bodies, the problem seems to be history, family, and the world itself. Whereas many directors chose to smash the viewer over the head with exegesis, Betzer, like the boys, prefers atmosphere to explanation. Maybe history can’t hurt you, but it can—Betzer seems to say—hurt a movie.
Still, much of the film’s narrative tension comes from wondering whether the young boy, despite his fucked-up family and status as a murderer, might be able to create some sort of meaningful life. A scene toward the end of the film showing the boys playing Vietcong in a Vietnam War reenactment presents some evidence that the younger brother may turn out differently than his loutish, beer-swilling sibling. It’s not quite enough to form even a glimmer of hope, but it is at least something.
FILM FEST FRENZYOur Guide to the 2014 Maryland film festival