This past July, I wrote a piece on punk rockers in genre films, and how a new generation of filmmakers who grew up within the punk community are injecting the subculture into their films and its characters. Jovanka Vuckovic is the latest newcomer on the scene and her feature-length debut Riot Girls is a punk rock dream of societal collapse and rising up against your oppressors. The script was written Katherine Collins, who has worked on TV series like Blindspot and Lost in Space (2018).
The year is 1995. A deadly disease has infected all the adults of the town of Potter’s Bluff. The disease manifests as black gut rot, killing the host within a few weeks. Their children are left to fend for themselves. Although society has fallen apart, some structures remain. The town is divided in two. Poor kids on the east and rich kids on the west. Both sides scavenge for water and batteries, occasionally engaging in gang warfare.
“Riot Girls is a punk rock dream of societal collapse and rising up against your oppressors.”
On the west side, the territory is ruled the former football team the Titans, headed by the authoritarian captain Jeremy (played by Munro Chambers, Turbo Kid). What used to be the high school is used as their headquarters and a prison for those who dared to defy Jeremy’s strict regime. Jeremy does not tolerate any weakness within his ranks, and would rather murder his own men to maintain order and honor among the Titans.
The east side is a lot more egalitarian, though the older kids are usually given the final say and everyone has their own role to play. Nat (Madison Iseman, Annabelle Comes Home) and Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski, Bates Motel) break into the homes of the deceased in search of supplies. They live a comfortable distance away from the Titans but when Nat’s brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois, Severity) is captured by the Titans for stealing their cargo and killing two of their men in the process, Nat and Scratch stage a rescue operation, with the help of a west side misfit Sony (Ajay Friese, Lost in Space).
Even with their parents are gone, a lot of these kids seem to be better off without them. Although it’s never directly addressed, there are signs that Scratch came from an abusive household, though she hides that pain with a not-to-be-fucked-with attitude. As for the Titans, they revel in their unquestioned power. Degrassi alumnus Chambers channels the Machiavellian energy of every asshole jock from every high school drama. The majority of the Titans are aggressive one-dimensional meatheads, so you don’t mind seeing them beaten over the head with a bat.
What makes Riot Girls stand out is the unique art direction. First off, you have the comic book art by illustrator Jenn Woodall. The opening exposition uses comic panels to set the scene of a world devastated by disease. When a new character is introduced, the frame freezes with an illustrated version of that character, their name and a brief description on the side. It’s useful for scene transitions as well; the camera zooms out to reveal a comic book, then zooms into the next panel with the words “Meanwhile…” on top.
“Chambers channels the Machiavellian energy of every asshole jock from every high school drama.”
The costume design shows a contrast between the rival gangs. The Titans wear yellow and blue varsity jackets (the universal sign for macho douchebags), while the east end kids have a more grungy alternative style. Scratch and Nat wear decorated black jackets, with punk slogans on the back like “Eat the rich” and “Punk’s not dead.” Costume designer Bonnie Sutherland is able to bring director Vuckovic’s vision into being, having previously worked on her short the Captured Bird and her segment ‘the Box’ in the horror anthology XX.
Lastly, there’s the fantastic soundtrack which scored a lot of brownie points in my book. The film opens with “Fast and Frightening” by L7, which sets the tone for what’s to come. True to its name, Riot Girls is filled with female-fronted punk numbers by 45 Grave, Girlschool, and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, as well as some Canadian punk classics from SNFU and Nomeansno. Even if the movie was as dull as nails (it’s not), I would have enjoyed it for the music alone.
Within this landscape of abandoned suburbs is this beautiful queer love story. As Chambers explained to me a couple months ago, it’s not a clichéd coming-out story where the audience is eased into accepting the character’s sexuality. The relationship between Scratch and Nat is already established. Plain and simple, they’re just being themselves. They rely on each other to survive in this new world and they have an unbreakable bond.
As is the case with many post-apocalyptic movies, the possibilities are endless. Who knows how far this deadly disease reaches? Who else can be struggling to survive beyond the small community? There are so many world-building opportunities. Maybe a sequel is in order? Or at least, a comic book spin-off.
“a bold first entry in what’s to be expected as a promising filmography for Jovanka Vuckovic.”
Riot Girls is a bold first entry in what’s to be expected as a promising filmography for Jovanka Vuckovic. Although I’m crossing my fingers for more punk-tinged movies, I’m confident Vuckovic will be able to write and direct films of all genres and varieties. More importantly, she’s making movies with strong female characters, written by women, produced by women, and with every department headed by women. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on what’s next to come.
Riot Girls is in select theatres now! Go grab yourself a ticket, feast your eyes on this post-apocalyptic punk rock spectacle and let us know what you thought of the film over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!