AUSTIN — Augustine Frizzell’s directorial debut took a bit of a circuitous route to the screen.
The Dallas director took her first crack at the story in 2014, wasn’t happy with the feature-length version she shot, and cut it into a short film called “Minor Setback,” which played SXSW in 2016. But this was a story she couldn’t give up on, mostly because it was her story. It’s inspired by her experience as a teenager adrift in the world, content with a life of low-paying jobs that paid just enough to fund her and her best friend’s hard-partying ways.
So she regrouped, found people to work with who understood her vision, and shot a new version last year.
The result is “Never Goin’ Back,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January before making its Texas debut here on Saturday. And, man, was it worth the wait.
The action centers on Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone), who share a dumpy two-bedroom house with Jessie’s wannabe drug dealer brother (Joel Allen) and his friend, Brandon (Kyle Mooney of “Saturday Night Live”). Angela surprises Jessie by booking a trip to Galveston to celebrate her 17th birthday, which the pair intends to pay for by working extra shifts at the diner. The plan starts to fall apart, though, when Dustin is robbed of his rent money and the girls get fired from their jobs.
If all of this sounds like a downer, it’s anything but. Though the girls don’t always act in their best interests, they’re smart. And the fun of “Never Goin’ Back” comes in watching them – and the dopey boys who inhabit their world – formulate plan after plan for how they’re going to make rent. Maybe the guys will break dance on the street corner for tips? Or rob a Neiman Marcus for pricey jeans to sell? Maybe the girls can save their jobs by tricking their boss into thinking they were in a car accident? (You have to at least applaud the dedication they have for making this one look plausible as Jessie chugs half a bottle of hooch and waits for Angela to smack her with a brick.)
Frizzell isn’t asking you to feel sorry for the girls – they know more than anyone the consequences of all the drinking and drugs, and they accept them as the price of freedom. But amid all the plotting and scheming, you pull for them to find a way out of this small, unsustainable existence they’ve created.
“It was based on my life, growing up in Garland, and obviously it was a difficult time in my life. And the more I looked back and thought about it, I could’ve ended up in a really bad place,” Frizzell told the audience at the Alamo Drafthouse Saturday after the screening. “We did drugs, we were stealing, we were up to no good. I could’ve turned up in jail or whatever the worst-case scenario is. And the more I looked back on that and introspectively deciphered ‘Why am I not like that?’ it kinda boiled down to this idea of this friendship I had at the time.”
At the end of “Never Goin’ Back,” Angela and Jessie are in a joyous – if equally uncertain – place. The actresses who play them, however, are definitely going places. Mitchell and Morrone are a stellar pair, making it seem as if they’ve been friends their whole lives by communicating with one another as much physically as with words.
Some of that credit, of course, is shared with Frizzell, who should have people lining up to work with her now. To that end, A24 has picked up the distribution rights to “Never Goin’ Back.” In the last few years, the company has backed “The Florida Project,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Lady Bird” and the Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” So the people picking the films there know what they’re doing, and they proved it again with this choice.
Look for “Never Goin’ Back” in theaters late summer. And for more with Frizzell, check out our Big Screen conversation with her ahead of her trip to Sundance.