Augustine Frizzell wanted to see a movie that represented her teen experience, and so she made it. The result is the 39-year-old writer/director’s first feature Never Goin’ Back, in select theaters today via juggernaut distributor A24. The movie follows two coke-snorting, table-waiting, shit-talking, high-school dropout besties Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone), who are scrambling to make rent after Angela blows all of their money on a trip to the beach. They sleep together on a mattress on the floor and share an unspecified level of queer intimacy.
In other hands, their scraping by might be framed as a tragedy or at least the grittiness of the story would be rubbed in your face hard enough to chafe, but Frizzell has placed her protagonists in a screwball comedy that leans heavily on potty humor (there’s a running constipation joke throughout the movie). Never Goin’ Back is centered on Angela and Jessie’s limitations that come from their socioeconomic reality, but it never pities them. Instead, it gives them a playground in which to run amuck, envisioning a stretch of a few days where the struggle is bearable and fun is possible.
The film played at this year’s Sundance and has been fairly divisive amongst critics. “A blast,” is what Variety’s Peter Debruge called it, while The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy wrote, “China could show it to inspire public confidence that it can overtake the U.S. even sooner than expected.” Certainly, much of the scrutiny the movie has received is related to the rarity of seeing young women being so unrepentantly messy on screen.
Last week, I talked to Frizzell about many matters of representation—of her own story, of low-income teen girls, of whiteness—as well as some of the criticism her movie has received. I found her to be refreshingly candid about her life and even some of the shortcomings she sees in her own film. An edited and condensed transcript of our discussion is below.
JEZEBEL: It strikes me that making this movie the way that you did, with the cast that you chose, imbues a screwball comedy with more meaning than it might have otherwise, but also invites more criticism than usual. Has that been your experience?
AUGUSTINE FRIZZELL: That’s a good analysis of the way things are going. It’s surprising. I think what I’ve learned is two things. Number one: making a comedy is hard in general. It’s hard to make people laugh, and it’s hard to accept other people’s style of humor. It’s so subjective. Number two: to try to make comedy about people who [audiences] don’t understand is even harder. Inherently, you have to be able to relate to people so that you can just slip right in and enjoy this style of humor. My—whether it be a mistake or just something I didn’t know beforehand—was that not many people relate to these characters because not many people who’ve seen the film are from a world like that, whether it be a small town in Texas, whether it be female with potty mouths, whether it be from no money or no parents, situations like that.
That’s why so many films about characters like these are dramas. It helps you understand those people and it helps you get a view into a world you don’t know much about. So for me to go into it and be like, “I’m not really going to take the time to explain who they are or why, I’m just going to go right on in and talk about a day in their lives...” I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to have to. In Superbad, you immediately know who these boys are. We’ve seen them a hundred times; most of us have known these characters, so you can get in with their story like that. Same with Broad City. We all know women like that. We know the New York tropes, we’ve seen it a hundred times also, they’re fucking hilarious.
Reading the press notes, it seems like representation of young women in this socioeconomic group was important to you.
It was huge because that was my life, and I feel like if it was my life, it was someone else’s life. There have to be other people who exist who can relate to that, who can relate to not having access to art, not having access to culture, not having access to education. What do you do? You don’t have anything to do, so you do drugs, you fuck up, you make dumb decisions. I wanted that to be part of the movie and I think it’s really important. I think it’s a valid experience, as sucky and as dysfunctional as it is. I wanted to have a comedy about that. Dudes get it all the time. I just wanted one that represented my teen experience. Even though it was hard and sad and tragic in a way, we still had good times. I wanted that, so I did that.
How autobiographical is this movie?
Very. I had a best friend; we’d lived on our own in Panama City Beach, Florida, for three months and then came back to Texas and rented a house with her brother and some roommates. In the real life situation, her dad lived in the house but wasn’t a dad-type guy. He was just another pot-smoking roommate. We worked at IHOP, we did a ton of drugs, we made those excuses. Two of the three excuses [in the movie] were real. We robbed a store; we got robbed by a guy named Tony, who stole our big console TV.
Did you experience any industry resistance when trying to get this movie made?
Strangely, no. But I think that’s twofold. My producers have a reputation for choosing good projects, so that’s helpful. I’d made a short film out of the first time that I shot it and that did really well at the festivals and was something people were responding to. And then the script was well-liked. I had a ton of interest in the script before we had money in place. The movie was really cheap, but we eventually had the financing in place, which gave me the freedom to cast whoever I wanted. I wasn’t going to rely on names. I just wanted the best people for the roles. I’m really fortunate that it was so easy.
Were you thinking of the larger political context of portraying low-income white people when you were making this?
Yes, but it’s not just my experience. It’s also the experience of people who aren’t able to tell their stories in general. An ultimate goal of mine is to help bring art into communities like that and bring access to hearing people’s stories. The reason we don’t see them that much is that people who come from those worlds don’t usually end up where I am.
I recognize that my situation is unique and it has a lot to do with the fact that I am white, and I’m a moderately attractive woman, so I had access to jobs like alcohol promotions where you wear a cute outfit and go out. I made a ton of money doing that. The fact that I was attractive [meant] I was an egg-donor at one point and made a shitload of money because my genetic code was considered favorable. I had these advantages in life and that’s how I was able to step my way out of that, but not everyone has that so we don’t see their stories and we don’t learn about them and there are still stigmas.
Your characters Dustin (Joel Allen) and Ryan (Matthew Holcomb) have mannerisms and affected speech that suggests they’re appropriating black culture, or at least their perception of it. What was the idea behind putting that on screen?
They’re a hundred percent based on people that I knew. Garland [Texas] is a suburb of Dallas. It’s not tiny. It’s not a podunk town or anything. It’s just a basic suburb. Our friends were every color. We used the n-word like we owned it. It was just part of our vernacular. I look back on that and I’m like, “Holy shit, how did we exist in this time and place, and that was okay?” But we were all a big group. It never occurred to me that that was wrong, and it wasn’t until I got out of that that I was like, “Oh wait, not everyone’s cool with that, and that’s not okay.” But those guys are based on people I knew and we talked like that, sadly. We used slang, and we cussed, and we were raunchy and dirty and smoked weed and drank 40s and listened to rap. That was my neighborhood. That’s what I knew.
You said donating eggs and doing alcohol promotion helped get you out of your situation. When did you know you were out of it?
I was 17 when I quit doing drugs. I’d been doing hard drugs at that point and I’d been stealing a lot. I went to jail a couple of times, and there was a point at that time in my life when I started to realize, “I can’t keep blaming my upbringing on how I’m turning out.” There’s this thing that happens to kids whose parents fuck up where you’re like, “It’s their fault! Of course I’m this way!” And then you start realizing: “No, I’m old enough to know what I’m doing.” There’s a cause and effect thing that I stated piecing together. It wasn’t even, “Oh you steal, you go to jail.” It was more like: “If I’m putting bad into the world, bad shit’s just gonna keep happening.” Whether it’s tangible things like losing your car or going to jail or just energetically within the universe, I’m not putting good out so good’s not gonna come back to me.
I knew I wanted more out of life, and I knew there were things I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know the path, but at some point I quit doing drugs. I was like, “I don’t want to go back to jail. I don’t want to get busted. I don’t want my probation to put me away for a long time.” I quit doing drugs, and I guess vanity caused me to quit smoking. And then I immediately got pregnant. I was 18, in community college getting my shit together, got pregnant by an old friend who I’d gone to school with. As soon as I got pregnant, I made one decision: Even though I’m pregnant I’m going to pursue everything I want to do. I’m not going to let a pregnancy stop me.
I remember being at a grocery store one night in Garland, I was pregnant and we went out late to get ice cream. I saw this young couple and they were about our age, maybe even younger, with a baby. They were fighting and miserable. I remember seeing them and saying, “That’s not gonna be me. I don’t want that out of life.” And then just resigned myself to do that. I immediately fell in love with my daughter so hardcore. She was the best thing I’d ever experienced and I just loved her and wanted to give her everything that I’d never had. So that’s how I got on that path.
Can I ask you about some of the criticism your movie has received?
So Film Threat...
I guess you’ve read some of these reviews...
I have. I have them memorized.
I thought you’d have answers. In Natalia Winkelman’s review for Film Threat, she suggests that “there’s... a real danger in perpetuating this type of teenage girl; it propagates the idea that, for women, defiance is power, radicalism is freedom, and being really hot is often all you need to survive.”
Amazing. That was one of the first ones. The Todd McCarthy [THR] review I was like, “Okay. This is not his thing, not made for him, no problem.” This one, I was like, “Being hot is all you need?” What do their looks get for them at all? Nothing. It gets them fucked with constantly. They still get fired, they still go to jail, their rent is still on the line. Their looks have succeeded in getting them nothing. In the very end, they try to manipulate Brandon [Kyle Mooney] because he’s been sexualizing them this whole time. That’s something women deal with—no matter what you look like, you’re getting sexualized almost everyday of your life. You walk the streets, you’re getting catcalled. They recognize that and try to utilize it to their advantage in a desperate situation. They’ve already tried to work. They’ve been holding down jobs, so it’s not like they’re constantly like, “Hey let me use my looks.” They’re just responding to the world as a whole.
To her point, you mentioned that your looks rescued you from your hard times. I know that’s not in your movie, per se...
One hundred percent it helps, but in the movie I don’t know how it’s pertinent. Did you see that?
No, but I did think about how conventionally hot your actors are and whether they were cast to help sell this movie. If they weren’t hot, it might be harder to reach people with this story.
You think so?
I mean, I think the greater critique here is of the movie industry, where in fact it really does sometimes seem that being really hot is often all you need to survive. Did it not strike you at all that people would be particularly interested in watching the two hot girls you were putting on film?
Absolutely, but that wasn’t why I cast them. I had everyone auditioning that I wanted to audition for this. Girls who ran the gamut from classic hotness to not-hotness. To be a hundred percent honest, I almost did not call Cami in because she was too attractive. I told her agents, “No, she’s too good-looking, she couldn’t be from this town.” They were like, “Just see her, just have a Skype with her.” I Skyped with her and her energy was infectious. I was like, “Holy shit, okay.” She’s really got this amazing inner light that I find appealing. I brought her in and read her and we had many discussions: Is she too attractive? Can we cast her? She’s a fucking supermodel. I had her come back and read with four other girls after she and Maia read just to make sure. “Can she keep this up? Is this how she’s going to be?” She was just so fucking good.
The chemistry is unbelievable.
That’s what I’m saying.
It’s like you’re watching two real friends.
That’s exactly how I felt. So it’s like, do I let that influence casting the best actor? No, fuck that. In the same way that, like, there’s a part of me that’s angry that I never showed their sexual relationship on screen. I made that decision; I was like, I don’t want to, because people are gonna be like, ‘Oh, two hot girls making out. This is eye candy for the masses.’ I’m not gonna show it. But they do; they have a sexual relationship. It’s unfair that I shouldn’t be able to represent that. I’m bisexual, but I’m married to a man, so when I talk about it, it’s like, “Oh, she’s another white, bisexual woman who’s talking about this to please our male fantasies.” It’s like, no! This is just inherently who I am. Why can’t I discuss this? But you have to approach everything with a sensitivity. Making this movie was a very hard line to walk, so I did the best I could. In some ways, it’s exactly the right thing and in other ways I’m still learning and figuring it out. But what can you do?