“Never Goin’ Back” is a teen comedy, but not kind we’re used to seeing. Augustine Frizzell’s directorial debut doesn’t tell the familiar story of college-bound highschoolers on an epic adventure that concludes with them safe in their parents’ suburban homes.
Instead, “Never Goin’ Back” turns the camera on two high school dropouts living together unsupervised in Texas. The girls aren’t dreaming of an acceptance letter from a prestigious liberal arts college — they’re dreaming of taking a few days off from their jobs at a local diner to go to the beach.
Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone) don’t have the SATs looming or overprotective parents hounding them, but they do have to support themselves and make rent. Luckily, getting stoned helps take the edge off.
Women and Hollywood talked to Frizzell about how her own teen years inspired “Never Goin’ Back,” why she decided not to screen an earlier version of the film, and her decision to keep Angela and Jessie’s sexual relationship ambiguous on-screen.
Frizzell is already attached to helm another pot-addled comedy, Ryan Reynolds-starrer “Stoned Alone.” She’s also helming the pilot of HBO’s upcoming teen drama “Euphoria.”
“Never Goin’ Back” opens in New York and Los Angeles today, August 3. You can find screening information on the film’s website.
W&H: So much of the movie hinges on Angela and Jessie and their chemistry. What was it like casting Maia and Camila? What was it about them that convinced you that they’d make believable best friends – and not just any best friends, but the kind of best friends who are totally inseparable?
AF: It was just evident getting them in the room together. We did chemistry readings between Maia and a couple other actresses and we did them with Cami and some others but when the two of them were together there was a physical closeness that the other actresses didn’t really share that just felt so authentic. They had an immediate rapport. It was almost like tactile – like you could touch it it felt so real.
W&H: The movie is inspired by your own story. When you were 15 you lived with a friend and worked, and basically parented yourself. It seems like those experiences could have just as easily served as the basis of a drama. When writing about your past, why did you decide to go the comedic route?
AF: Two reasons, really. Number one, I wanted to highlight the good times of that period in my life. It was hard and tragic and all those things that we’ve seen and we know about, but that wasn’t all that existed in that time in my life, and that’s not all that exists for people who come from that type of world. I felt it was a niche that had not been filled yet.
I had never seen it, basically — I had never seen a comedy about people like me and my teen experience. I wanted my own teen comedy. There are a million teen comedies that exist. I love them. I love seeing teenagers. But there was nothing that represented who I was, so I wanted to make that.
Number two, I feel like my teen experience is valid. Even with the hardship, it still deserves to be seen and told. It’s not going to be for everybody and not everyone’s going to relate to it or find it funny or even really care. But there are people out there who will and do. And those are the people – as well as myself – who I made this movie for.
W&H: There’s a funny scene where Angela’s tasting something at a store and a guy who doesn’t even work there starts reprimanding her for stealing. After he comments on Jessie’s clothes and says she looks like a “whore” Angela unleashes this torrent of insults on him. It’s hilarious but it’s also very revealing – it shows not just how protective she is of her friend but that she won’t let a stranger judge either of them. The movie itself seems protective of the girls – it’s not about fitting them into a box or teaching them a lesson. Can you talk a little bit about that? It seems totally in line with what you were just saying.
AF: Yeah, absolutely. Everything in the film is really intentional. It’s a hard, hard line to walk. There wasn’t really anything I could look to for a template. Nothing like it really exists.
When I set out to make it I knew there were certain things that I wanted to accomplish, and I think some of those I did and some I didn’t do as well. But you know, you do your best. And it’s my first effort.
With the girls I just wanted the love between them to be the highlight of the movie. I wanted their friendship to be first and foremost. I wanted it to reflect the way that I feel about my girlfriends, my daughter, and the relationships with my friends that I had at that time. I feel so incredibly lucky to have those relationships. It’s such a special and rare thing, and that’s what I wanted people to take away from this.
All the rest is secondary. I just wanted to show that there are good friendships that really influence who you become as a person — how you see the world and how you go about accomplishing your goals or making it through hard times.
W&H: I know what you mean about there not being a template for this kind of story, but were you influenced by any particular stories of female friendship even if they weren’t necessarily comedies?
AF: Yeah, I love movies about female friendship. “Thelma & Louise” is one of my favorites. I love “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” I love more recent films – I loved “Girls Trip” so much.
“Broad City” is a huge one. I had already written and made the film the first time before I’d ever even seen “Broad City.” I was in rewrites for this version of the movie and I finally caught it. I was so inspired and moved by how they portrayed Abbi and Ilana’s friendship. It’s never a fight between the two girls. I just thought that was so special. I loved that. That represents the friendships that I’ve known. We don’t have a major falling out and get back together. We’ve got each other’s backs. There would never be a moment in my friendships where we’d be like, “Ah, I don’t know if we’re going to be friends anymore.” That just doesn’t happen. Like, you might tell them to fuck off and you might be annoyed, but you’re never going to just dismiss the friendship.
I’ve looked at all of those projects in regards to friendships, but also just the friends I’ve had and known.
W&H: So like you were saying earlier, the love story of this movie is their friendship. It’s rare to see a film with two female leads where neither has a love interest. It seems like they have a mostly platonic friendship but they also sometimes make out. The movie definitely implies that things could be sexual. I’m assuming you kept the nature of their relationship somewhat ambiguous intentionally. Did you want to portray a more fluid type of sexuality?
AF: One-hundred percent, yeah. I’m bisexual. I’m married to a man now. My friend at the time, who this movie is based on, she and I had a very fluid relationship. We were best friends who also slept together. We had a very sexual relationship. We dated guys and slept with guys. There was never a label put on it. We never had to explain it. We weren’t doing it for anybody – we were just living our lives and being ourselves.
I feel like it’s such tricky, tricky water to navigate. I thought long and hard about it. Any time I added it to the script it felt like exposition – like, “Ok, now we have to explain that we’re bisexual.” And is it one of those things like, oh the two hot white girls are of course bisexual. You have to think about that. If you show them making out then it [could read as though the] scene is added just for the sake of the guys because they’re living out the fantasy of a man’s idea of what two girls do in the privacy of their bedroom.
I think we should be able to show the girls making out in the same way you’d have a scene between a heteronormative couple making out without having to be judged by it. But we can’t yet. It’s really unfair. That was frustrating. I’d love to be able to show that and I’d love to be able to have them exist and have these tender moments where they are sensual and they are having this physical relationship. But I didn’t think it was going to work within the thread of the story.
Part of me is glad that I made that choice. The other part of me wishes that I had just been like, “Fuck it. I want to show these girls in all of their realness and the fluidity of their sexuality.” But at the same time, it was tough. I definitely thought long and hard about it. And the girls definitely do imply – and we understand through a couple of lines – that they have a sexual relationship and they haven’t defined where they register on the scale of straightness.
W&H: A few years back you made a version of this film that you decided not to show. Can you walk me through that?
AF: Yeah, I made it in 2014 with a script that I didn’t really feel was ready to be shot. We had time constraints and kind of a deadline. We rushed through production and it wasn’t really turning out the way I wanted. There were a lot of decisions within the script that hadn’t been authentic to me and to how I wanted the movie to go but based on my notes or feedback from people around me.
After we finished shooting I was editing it and the movie wasn’t what I wanted it to be. The story was important to me and it was my first feature. I wanted it to be the thing I wanted it to be! I was just like, “I don’t think I can do this.”
I had a lot of support and encouragement from my friends and my current producers. They told me, “You don’t have to do it. You can wait. You can take all the time you need and make it exactly what you want to make it.” That was appealing to me. I took the time.
The second time around, I learned from the scenes that I hated the most within the first version. I took them out. I was like, “I don’t want to make any decision based in fear, because no matter what I decide, no matter what movie I make, there are going to be people who don’t like it no matter what. The rare gem comes across when everyone likes your movie. But it’s very rare that happens, and I knew that. I wanted to make sure that I liked it, and that stuff within in satisfied my creative desires and that it was creatively fulfilling to me. So that’s what I did second time around.
W&H: It’s such a brave and bold decision that you made. Are people asking about it? Is it something you’re open to talking about? I just think that so many people probably end up putting out stuff they’re not happy with, and it sounds like you really wanted to make your movie your movie. And you had to have that first experience to learn how to do that.
AF: Yeah, absolutely. But not denying that it was soul-crushing at the time. I was very depressed after I made that decision. I felt like such a failure and that I had wasted so much time. It wasn’t an easy decision. It was really tough. I think back to it and everyone was like, “You don’t realize how many filmmakers would kill for this opportunity to go back and remake their first thing and get it right or get it the way they feel it’s right. This is a huge opportunity for you. Don’t look at it as a bad thing. Look at it as a positive thing.”
I talk freely about that experience and my past [for the same reasons]. This movie is based on a time in a time in my life that might be regrettable, or people might look at it that way and think certain thoughts. But everything for me has been a learning experience in life. If there’s anything I can do, I want to be able to help other people learn from my experiences — and hopefully learn from their own experiences. I don’t want us to look at our pasts as shameful things that held us back, but instead have built the people we’ve become. And hopefully we like the people we’ve become. We have our pasts to thank for that.
“Seinfeld” is one of my favorite shows of all time. And [the characters] are constantly doing despicable things but we can all just look at it and laugh. Because they are white people in New York. They’re irresponsible and we find that behavior really funny. But these girls, because they are young — and maybe the comedy just isn’t as good — they are still being judged [by some critics and audiences] in a way that really surprised me. On the other hand it didn’t surprise me.
W&H: I think it’s because they are young and they are girls and they are poor. Like in “Seinfeld,” the characters’ behavior isn’t viewed as critically because they have money. Audiences are less judgmental about their life choices.
AF: Absolutely. Like if you see someone with food stamps and they’re buying a bottle of wine, you’re like, “What are you doing? You shouldn’t be spending your money on wine.” No, they have just as much of a right to get a nice buzz on at the end of the day as any of the rest of us. It just so happens they need a little extra help.
We’re so quick to judge people who don’t have money and we’re so quick to judge their behavior as being less acceptable because they should be working to get to a better place in life. Whereas the guys in “Superbad” have a really stable life, a really comfortable home environment, and college on the horizon. So we can look at the mistakes they’re making and laugh it off. But with these girls we’re thinking “Shouldn’t they be….”
But they are kinda doing pretty damn good to be 16 years old on their own. They are holding down jobs and have been for a while. They’re paying rent and they get themselves to work. They do all these things that require a little more effort than the average teen and yet they are so harshly judged.
W&H: And why are these girls — or characters like them — only worthy of having a narrative if the narrative is about them “bettering” themselves?
AF: Exactly. That’s the best summing up of the situation.
W&H: In advance of Sundance you told us, “Filmmaking is a team effort and if you have teammates who think that because you’re a woman, every decision you make needs to be double checked or second guessed, then you’re going to be butting heads the whole time and the end product will suffer.” Have you had an experience like this?
AF: I have, but let’s leave the past in the past. I came across difficult people and I still come across difficult people. I often wonder how much of it is because I’m a woman, and how much of it is just being around a difficult personality. For the sake of not dragging names through the mud, it was a learning experience.
W&H: What was your experience like premiering the film at Sundance? Do you have advice for other directors who are premiering their first features there?
AF: Premiering my film at Sundance was surreal. It didn’t feel real, and I felt very removed. I had a hard time relaxing and enjoying it. But at the same time it’s just such a joyful thing to finally see your thing put out there and be accepted by Sundance, a festival that I’ve looked at and wanted to be a part of for years and years.
As for advice, I used an analogy to tell my husband about my experience. The first time I went bungee jumping I was really scared. Had I not just fully committed to the experience, I would have stood on the pedestal and second guessed and stepped back and never actually dove. But on the way up to doing the bungee jump I said I’d give myself to the count of three. And then at the count of three I’m just going to dive. I’m not even going to think about it. I’m not going to second guess. I’m just going to do it.
It’s kind of like that with the film release. You cannot second guess. You just have to step into it and own it with confidence. Just be prepared. It’s so much easier that way, and so much less stressful.