Most coming-of-age movies have an inherent problem: they’re made with substantial distance to their subject material. The classics of the genre often come drenched in nostalgia, featuring observations filtered through decades of additional thought and growth. While that makes for a quote-unquote “better” film - or at least a more conventionally well-constructed one - it removes a certain amount of immediacy and vitality from what should absolutely be an immediate, vital genre. There's nothing wrong with that kind of retrospective take; it's just a shame we don't see more films made when all that young-adult angst is still fresh.
Canadian filmmaker Terry Chiu's Mangoshake occupies a curious spot in the coming-of-age pantheon. It's openly scornful of the genre, going as far as mocking Boyhood - a film with which it shares a lengthy production period and visibly aging actors. But its characters still struggle with many issues common to coming-of-age films - and they do so even as the filmmakers were clearly struggling with those issues themselves, lending the film an honesty missing from most films in the genre. But lest that make the movie sound like a self-indulgent exercise in soul-searching, it’s also silly as hell.
The film’s plot - such that its barely-structured, episodic, pace-agnostic storytelling can be characterised - concerns a group of youths at the end of their school days, loosely grouped around two handmade street-vending stands in a variety of empty suburban landscapes.. "Mangoshake" sells mango shakes, ostensibly, while "Chow Mein Asia China" (started as a spiteful attack on Mangoshake) sells noodles, but the stands mostly function as roving focal points for the youngsters’ interpersonal dramas and hijinks. Characters perform stupid stunts, talk in silly voices, and make crude wisecracks at each other’s expense; relationships form and are broken apart; cast members join and leave the film seemingly at random. All of this builds to an action-packed climax in which mangos are used as weapons. It’s all very strange.
Stranger even than the story of Mangoshake is its wilful disregard for convention. Mangoshake feels generationally removed from filmmaking's status quo in a way that’s idiosyncratic and exciting. Meaningful observations are suddenly interrupted by juvenile comedy smash-cuts. Subtitles for the film’s more (intentionally) mumbly characters add extra jokes and anti-jokes. Characters will occasionally explode into bursts of rage or emotion, only to return to normal moments later. Actors break character and corpse onscreen, and it’s just left in the film. None of this should really work, but it all helps create an anarchic energy that makes the anti-nostalgic notes hit all the harder.
If Mangoshake exudes a natural air of friendship and fun, it’s because that’s what fueled the filmmaking process. I spent seven years running a 48-hour filmmaking competition in New Zealand, and Mangoshake has the same DIY aesthetic and sense of camaraderie as some of the most entertaining shorts I saw there. But though the film’s technical elements are rough, Chiu’s blocking and comic timing are on point - and at times the cinematography even gets oddly beautiful, helping to evoke the story's more emotional beats.
As it was shot sequentially, Chiu's craft gets visibly better as the film plays out, but that’s less important than seeing how the characters’ interactions change. There’s a genuine, uncomfortable anxiety lying underneath Mangoshake’s juvenile antics, and as its group of kids becomes a group of adults, you feel the reality that this film represents actual people hashing out what they’re going through, bantering with each other, and having fun making a movie while they’re still together. It’s a kind of magic that can’t be simulated by a hundred Richards Linklater.
Mangoshake takes a while to come together, and not everything in it completely works. Some sequences are actively annoying, even, and many audiences will consider the film’s lack of polish a dealbreaker. But for those who can see the heart inside the roughest cinematic outsider art, Mangoshake has a lot to offer. In both text and context, it’s a film about the joy of friendship, of accidents, and of failing joyfully. I look forward to seeing what its creators - possessed of a unique comic voice and disarming emotional depth - come up with next.