If you vibe with drama “The Young Arsonists,” you’re in for a powerful exploration of feminine adolescent independence. [Santa Barbara International Film Festival]

Memories are a strange thing. They are flickers of the past, like embers of a long burnt out flame riding the strands of neuropathways until they can be inflamed once more, waiting to come billowing into the present. The problem with memory is that, for all its vividness, it’s not a complete picture. It lacks the physical depth of moment, the total perspective of place, the tangibility of reality, and yet it can still possess someone with the same joy or pain, fulfillment or regret, now as it did then. Writer/director Sheila Pye’s first feature film, The Young Arsonists (2022), screening during Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2023, is entrenched in memory to the point that the film, rich with visual metaphor and meaning, often lacks the corporeality of the moment, trading depth of character for emotionality.


L-R: Madison Baines as Sara, Jenna Warren as Veronica, Sadie Rose as Amber, and Maddy Martin as Nicole in THE YOUNG ARSONISTS. Photo courtesy of Game Theory Films.

It’s been one year since Nicole’s (Maddy Martin) life changed forever and each day since grows no easier as her parents are without work, their farmhouse is lost, and the days are a mix of adolescent freedom and familial responsibility. Things start to shift when Nicole’s friend Veronica (Jenna Warren) initiates a visit to Nicole’s old home, the two discovering that it remains unsold and empty. Seeing it as an opportunity, Veronica convinces Nicole and two other girls, Amber and Sara (Sadie Rose and Madison Baines, respectively), to move in, creating a hidden oasis for the four from the problems that creep up on the edges of their lives. But when running away is no longer an option, the four must figure out a way to face the past to move forward in the present.


L-R: Kyle Meagher as Seamus and Maddy Martin as Nicole in THE YOUNG ARSONISTS. Photo courtesy of Game Theory Films.

According to the press notes, Pye came to filmmaking as a visual artist. This is clear from the very beginning of the film as one begins to sense that the audience is invited into a memory. It feels real, it looks real, but the colors are a bit more dim, the edges a touch more faded, and narrative details less important than how one feels about the experience. This isn’t to imply that the cinematography from Michael LeBlanc (Business Ethics) is somehow lackluster, moreso that LeBlanc captures the sense of drifting, of sentimentality, of how one can feel adrift in the tide of thought or feeling. That the narrative does center on Nicole who, herself, gets lost in her own memories and dreams, does make one feel as though they are going down a rabbit hole of consciousness, with the real world several layers above the story Pye’s telling. At its best, this enables the sensation of freedom one gains when gathered amongst friends in a safe atmosphere. Thus Arsonists is able to explore aspects of female physiology and interpersonal relationships without the threat of exposure. Roughly translated, the characters get to be themselves in a way that we typically only see with adolescent boy stories, the closest to Arsonists being director Sophia Silver’s 2022 coming of age drama Over/Under. The characterization of the characters from Pye, as well as the performances from the cast, create the illusion of honest bonding in a facsimile of safety. How would you behave among friends if you didn’t have to worry about judgement or consequence?


L-R: Jenna Warren as Veronica and Maddy Martin as Nicole in THE YOUNG ARSONISTS. Photo courtesy of Game Theory Films.

The issues arise within the film as the outside world invades the tranquility of their haven. Like an intrusive thought disrupting recollection, the strife within Nicole and Veronica’s respective homes infiltrate the sanctuary indirectly through the avoidance of confrontation or direct communication. By swallowing their pain, by avoiding opening up, the memories the audience observe turn to nightmares. But where the visual elements strongly uphold the recollection-like quality of Arsonists, the lack of details or depth in the world ends up generating a sense of hollowness within the narrative as a whole. Both Nicole and Veronica have, individually, clear narrative arcs, whereas Amber and Sadie do not. Individually, the stories of Nicole and Veronica are moving and complex, but the way they interact with each other appears, at times, to be in service of where the story wants to go versus where the characters should. These are two different concepts when telling a concrete tale that would have individuals not acting out of character but behaving in a manner that creates confusion as to why this would be a safe space at all or why these characters, especially the two we barely get to know, behave beholden to the other two. Thematically, the strife echoes that which Nicole and Veronica are running from, allowing for Arsonists to explore themes of trauma, abuse, and negligence in the age of latchkey kids; however, the execution keeps the audience at a distance from the characters rather than pulling them in.


Maddy Martin as Nicole in THE YOUNG ARSONISTS. Photo courtesy of Game Theory Films.

Even if all the ideas within Arsonists don’t line up exactly as they appear to be set up to be, there’s such potential present that an engaged audience will still find things to consider. The performances from the central cast make one believe that, yes, girls are just as gross, silly, capable, and explosive as boys; the cinematography will convince you that everything you’ve witnessed in the present may as well be recollection; and the visual elements, used discretely, convey a sense that it may be the idea of the story that matters more than the story itself. Though this reviewer prefers for all the things to work in support of each other, those resonating on the same wavelength as the story will likely come away with a different reaction.

Screening during Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2023.

For more information, head to the official Latido Films The Young Arsonists webpage.

Final Score: 3 out of 5.


Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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