Two scrawny teenage boys approached Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet at a skateboard park in Southern California a few years ago. The boys had found a set of keys to a Jaguar and wanted to know if they belonged to Mims and Tippet. The early 20-somethings, dressed casually and looking decidedly not like owners of a Jaguar, laughed at the question. They also marveled at the honesty and earnestness of the two fresh-faced skate punks.
Then, after Mims and Tippet denied ownership, a small but wonderful thing happened. The two boys, Garrison Saenz and Kevin Conway, started arguing with one another, cracking jokes at each other’s expense and fading into the short-hand trash talk of best friends. It was as if Mims and Tippet had disappeared.
Native Austinite Mims and Tippet felt like they might be on to something. The two had formed a friendship through the film program at the California Institute of the Arts. They had recently graduated and were in search of the subjects for their first documentary film. Suckers for a good best friends story, Mims and Tippet saw cinematic and storytelling potential in the Saenz-Conway dynamic.
The scene at the skatepark that day marked the first step toward the creation of “Only the Young,” Mims and Tippet’s original and compelling look at the friendship and growing pains of the two Southern California boys. The movie, which made the National Board of Review’s year-end list of best documentaries and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, opens Friday in Austin at the Violet Crown Cinema.
She had “the arms of a flute player.” That’s what Elizabeth Mims’ marching band instructor told the former Austin High School student, thus ending the teen’s hopes of playing the brawnier instruments she preferred, like trumpet or trombone.
So Mims quit the band after two years. The upshot? Forsaking the flute allowed the budding artist the chance to spend more time pursuing the creative passion that would shape her young life: making movies.
The 2006 Austin High School graduate grew up surrounded by film. She loved the camaraderie and joint sacrifice of the crews she encountered on the film sets of her father, Steve Mims, a longtime director and editor who also is an instructor at the University of Texas. By the age of 12, Mims was making her own movies with the family’s VHS camcorder. She enlisted her younger brother to serve as an actor, enticing him with the allure of guns and war in a Civil War-era movie she made inspired by the costumes in “Gone with the Wind.”
Growing up with a filmmaking father meant access to film sets and a look into the creative process. It also meant that family photos were never simple. Pillows would be used to bounce light. Home movies involved establishing shots and choreography. But it also meant that by the time Elizabeth was ready to go to college, her father encouraged her to attend the California Institute of the Arts, which has a reputation for its avant-garde filmmaking program.
“They kind of let you develop your own style,” Mims said of the Cal Arts program. Mims and Tippet gravitated toward a style of documentary filmmaking that feels very much like narrative filmmaking. They give their subjects space to breathe and develop organically, with the movie revealing hardly a trace of the filmmakers’ fingerprints. Outside of occasional tilting and panning, the camera moves very little, capturing the action as it unfolds.
“For us, in documentary, it was always a lot more interesting to finally let there be a conversation happening on screen, rather than just a question-and-answer situation,” Mims said.
While at Cal Arts, Mims and Tippet found inspiration in such documentaries as “Billy the Kid” and “American Movie,” which offer intimate portraits of people dealing with specific phases in life.
When they graduated, Mims and Tippet wanted to apply their unique style of filmmaking to documentaries.
Back to the boys
After their initial meeting at the skatepark, the filmmakers returned to film Saenz and Conway skating, followed by a brief interview about the two boys’ lives. Mims and Tippet didn’t know exactly where the story would take them, but they wanted to follow the friendship as it grew and morphed.
“We were definitely worried about the fact that there may not be a story,” Mims said. But when they started filming, Mims and Tippet kept telling themselves that something would come of their hours of footage. To help lower the stakes and pressure, the two filmmakers decided to call their project a short.
Every day after school, Mims and Tippet would meet up with Saenz and Conway and follow them around, as they hopped fences, skated empty swimming pools, chatted about girls and their future. When the filmmakers met Saenz’s girlfriend, Skye, they knew they had discovered the engine for much of the film’s momentum.
Skye, whom Mims describes as “an incredibly articulate, amazingly witty and brutal girl,” brought out the conflict in the boys. Slowly the boys’ simple lives of idyll take on new dimensions and challenges. “We were seeing this relationship kind of unravel in front of us,” Mims said.
All three of the teens show a startling vulnerability in allowing their lives to be documented, and Mims and Tippet, working as a two-person crew, do excellent work of serving as an invisible hand in helping shape the narrative, asking questions off-camera at the right times without strangling the natural process.
“You already have people telling you what to do, anyways,” at that age, Mims said about the space they gave the kids. The filmmakers just wanted to follow the teens around and see what happened. “And it kind of turned into a real relationship where they would see how Jason and I would interact and banter and they would do vice versa, and it became an intricate relationship where they felt comfortable to be more open.”
The boys initially liked the idea of having their skateboarding documented, but as the two-year process developed, they “told us it was a lot like therapy, as well,” Mims said.
Mims admits to being turned off by the cliquish social nature of her own high school experience, which helped her relate to the three teens, all “outcasts” in some way. That acute understanding of the nuances of the teenage experience informs the storytelling in “Only the Young” and imbues the hands-off style with sensitivity and sympathy that never border on pandering.
“The film is a total surprise … there’s a dimension to that film that’s hard to describe,” Steve Mims said recently by phone. “And I think what surprises people is that you become very connected to those kids in that film in a small emotional way. It catches people off guard.”
Elizabeth Mims has started working on her next screenplay, another story centered on the bonds of friendship. It will be the first feature-length narrative screenplay she has written. But for the time being, she’s calling it a short. Less pressure.