Noting that an indie movie is basically akin to a studio picture on a tighter budget is often meant as a dig—a way of diminishing indie cred, maybe implying that the indie is just an audition to make mainstream junk. But some studio-friendly genres benefit from scaling down. Augustine Frizzell’s Never Goin’ Back is not so different in aim from any number of teen or teen-spirited comedies, some studio-born (Superbad) some more indie-minded (Smiley Face), some TV-based (Broad City). It’s about Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone), two dropout besties cohabitating in the Dallas area and scraping by as waitresses at a diner, trying to gin up some rent money after Angela impulsively splurges on a vaguely shabby-sounding getaway to Galveston. Sometimes they get in their own way—they’re both fond of weed and also coke—but Angela’s vacation plan, a birthday celebration for her friend, was well-supported by a plan to work extra shifts, until their roommate, Jessie’s dumbass brother (Joel Allen), tries to make his drug-dealing dreams a reality. He loses money for everyone in their shitty house except the fourth roommate, his buddy Brandon, the most consistently employed of the bunch—and improbably so, considering he’s played by SNL’s master of awkward minutiae Kyle Mooney.
As Angela and Jessie set out to accomplish simple-yet-impossible tasks (laundering their uniforms, getting to work on time, feeding themselves), some of the movie’s gags and rhythms are as predictable as any number of more mainstream stoner comedies: accidental ingestion of pot cookies, exhortations of “dude!” and the like. To that end, some of the dialogue, especially early going, sounds a little canned, even calculated, in its evocations of limited-means scheming. But Mitchell and Morrone power through, and some of the movie’s broader touches are admittedly hilarious, like a series of cutaways illustrating the friends’ past attempts to convincingly fake their way out of working (methods of self-assault include mosquitos and bricks). What really infuses Never Goin’ Back with some extra electricity, though, is Frizzell’s dedication to finding life in small details, like how the characters don’t comment much about the oppressive Texas heat, but visibly wilt as they walk from their house to the bus stop—and later sigh with temporary contentment as they absorb the sweet relief of supermarket air conditioning.
By now it’s a cliché to say that studio comedies are overly insistent on chipper, “likable” female characters—and while it is true, movies like Bridesmaids or even Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates have also done their part to dismantle that requirement. But it’s still relatively rare to see a female buddy comedy... well, exist at all, but it’s even rarer to see one where the leads are allowed to act like fellow Texans Beavis and Butthead. Angela and Jessie are more resourceful and less abjectly stupid than those boys, something made clearer by the dimmer parallel friendship between Jessie’s brother and his buddies, especially in his fast, careless loyalty to Tony (Kendal Smith). But the girls do tend to end a lot of conversations by flipping their middle fingers, and their moments of inspiration tend to get undercut by their haplessness (as well as their economic circumstances, though the movie doesn’t belabor the point). Their company is enjoyable in large part because Mitchell and Morrone do a wonderful job conveying how much they truly love each other. When the girls are briefly imprisoned, their faces fall when they realize they can’t share a jail cell.
This sense of friendship more than compensates for the ways Frizzell sometimes pads Never Goin’ Back with tired edgy-comedy go-tos: projectile vomiting, casual cocaine use, etc. It also has the saving grace of being funny, and getting funnier as it goes (though its last shot feels superfluously reassuring after the movie has already found a poignant endpoint). If her movie gets enough attention, Frizzell might well be called up to make something like The Spy Who Dumped Me, a much bigger lady-centric buddy comedy also opening this weekend. Susanna Fogel, the movie’s director and co-writer, previously made the wonderful, low-key Life Partners, about two women in their late 20s who start to experience a major imbalance in their codependent friendship. This one is about two women in their early 30s who get caught up in a violent espionage plot. So yes, she’s gone high-concept, in that now-familiar way of embracing a genre’s clichés without quite full-on spoofing them. But to the degree that Spy Who Dumped Me feels more idiosyncratic than its action-comedy logline, it’s because Fogel retains her gift for the nuances of female friendship.
Audrey (Mila Kunis) begins the movie in a funk, somewhere between irritated and devastated that her most recent boyfriend has broken up with her via text. Her best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) supports her with obsessive zeal. She’s such a ride-or-die tagalong that when Audrey’s ex turns out to be a CIA operative, hastily instructing her to hand off a MacGuffin before he’s shot to death, Morgan insists that jetting off to Vienna makes perfect sense.
The movie stays cheerfully and amusingly on Morgan’s wavelength, as it doles out action violence with some slapstick timing, and the leads do their best to react and riff. Most buddy comedies are really mismatched-buddy comedies, constructing comic duos out of deep, bickering-friendly contrasts. But Never Goin’ Back and The Spy Who Dumped Me both do something less common; they’re buddy comedies about real soulmates. Fogel’s movie is a little more nonsensical about it, in keeping with the tendency of McKinnon characters (like some Melissa McCarthy and Zach Galifianakis characters) to bundle together quirks and wacky improvisations. But Fogel’s skill with throwaway dialogue sells the sillier stuff (as does McKinnon; there’s a reason she gets away with such caricatures). In the movie’s best scene, the amateur spy duo is captured and tortured for information, and instead of offering anything useful, they trade off revelations of each other’s weirdest, darkest secrets. Of course, Morgan reveals Audrey’s, and vice versa; they’re best friends, they know everything about each other.
Screenwriting gurus would probably insist that the heroines of these movies have more conflict with each other—that they separate or have a big fight at an act-break or something. In absence of that formula, Fogel does have some trouble paying off either the comedy or the violence; like so many James Bond pictures, there’s one country-hop too many, with a protracted yet weirdly unspectacular final 20 minutes that drag the movie close to the two-hour mark. But a little action-comedy meandering isn’t a terrible price to pay for the warmth of Fogel’s affection for her characters, just as Never Goin’ Back is more than worth sitting through some bad CG puke. Indeed, Spy Who Dumped Me’s surprisingly high body count and Back’s supporting dirtbags both make a similarly bold point about their leading ladies, half-bleak and half-heartwarming: Ultimately, everyone outside of their relationships is just another piece of detritus.