Stephen Whitty

Columnist, critic for national and international outlets. Author, lecturer, host.

Jun 13, 2022
1 min read

Bored teenagers, fighting with their parents, depending fiercely on each other, driving aimlessly around their California town and wondering what’s next after high school. And convinced, whatever it is, it has to be better than this.

American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Lady Bird — it’s not a novel story.

But while Coast doesn’t take us anyplace new – and often seems to be headed someplace old — at least it treats its characters and their hometown with some affection and respect.

The film is set in Santa Maria, an agricultural community along California’s fertile Central Coast, filled with endless strawberry fields and high-end vineyards. The soil is rich but the people who work it are not. Most of the adults we meet are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Hard, back-breaking labor is all they know.

But 15-year-old Abby wants to know more – particularly what life is like outside Santa Maria.

When a scruffy rock band passes through town, she’s tempted to leave with them. But first she needs to resolve some problems, if she can. Like her ongoing battles with her mother, newly split from Abby’s father. And her conflicts with her friends, one of whom – much to Abby’s disgust – seems to actually like Santa Maria.

Coast gets points for its inclusivity and warmth. Abby is Latina; her friends are straight and gay, Anglo and Asian. They relate to each other like real teenagers, their bursts of BFF bonding occasionally interrupted by flashes of adolescent anger. The dialogue isn’t full of falsely precocious, sitcom-ready teenspeak.

Yet in many ways, the story still feels slightly unreal. Of the half-dozen teens we meet, every one is conventionally attractive and model-thin. Although the film begins with them running from the cops, it’s hard to imagine what their crimes might have been. The ugliness of real modern life – criminality, violence, substance abuse, teen suicide – never intrudes here.

The film is such a throwback, in fact, it’s a surprise when you realize it’s set in the present day. No one spends much time on social media, or even on their phones. Boys cut their hair into mohawks; girls dress in punky clothes and worship bands like Husker Du and Joy Division. Is this 2022 or 1982? It’s as if screenwriter Cindy Kitagawa reached back into her own youth for the feelings, but forgot to update the details.

But the cast works hard. Fatima Ptacek is appealing as Abby, full of quicksilver emotions, and Cristela Alonzo provides a solid, stolid presence as her hard-working mother. (Old pro Melissa Leo shows up too, although her character seems to exist merely to give Alonzo someone to vent to.) And co-directors Jessica Hester and Derek Schweickart capture some of the region’s beauty and charm – its sandy beaches, its famous barbecues, its small-town stores.

It looks like a nice place to visit. Even if Abby can’t wait not to live there.

3.5 stars (out of 5)

Coast