Young Bodies Heal Quickly at 10: Andrew T. Betzer and the Left-Behind Indies

Movies Features Andrew T. Betzer
Young Bodies Heal Quickly at 10: Andrew T. Betzer and the Left-Behind Indies

The kind of filmmaking that was once the poster child for independent cinema in America is dead. It’s easy to say that mumblecore is long gone, but that term—for a specific social group at a specific time—is often used so nebulously that it’s ceased to have meaning. Films like Frances Ha are often grouped in, although that film was made for millions of dollars, has an extraordinarily clean digital aesthetic, and could even afford a David Bowie song to rip off a scene from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. Frances Ha’s star, Greta Gerwig, is one of the big winners from that generation of DIY talents. Last year she directed the highest-grossing movie of 2023, making almost a billion and a half dollars globally. Meanwhile, her Nights and Weekends co-director Joe Swanberg was working to keep the lights on at the VHS rental shop he was running out of the back of a Chicago pizzeria. There were winners and losers from this moment.

Another directing pair whose fates seem to have split is the Safdie brothers. Benny has been doing well for himself acting and producing, while Josh seems to be unable to get any projects off the ground—perhaps he put too much stock in the brothers staying as a duo. Then there’s the sort of third Safdie, the honorary brother: Ronald Bronstein. Since his feature Frownland debuted in 2007, he hasn’t made another film. Instead, he’s worked with the Safdies on a number of their features, often writing with Josh and editing with Benny. 

The Safdies’ dirty, handheld 16mm stylistic preferences both set them apart from their digital contemporaries and made them natural collaborators with Frownland’s DP Sean Price Williams, who had become a hot item by the time they started collaborating with him on Heaven Knows What and Good Time. By this time the brothers had become more professional in their style and more old-school in their aesthetics. They weren’t as interested in new digital realities than in the physical—they have more in common with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Mean Streets than they do with Hannah Takes the Stairs and Funny Ha Ha

Williams and the Safdies seem to have been on a similar page aesthetically—by the time we get to their first short together, The Black Balloon, there had already been a similar handheld, filmic mise en scene developed by each artist. Aside from the seven-year process that was making Frownland, Williams also evolved his grainy, handheld 16mm look through his number of collaborations with an all-but forgotten and completely overlooked filmmaker: Andrew T. Betzer. 

I’ll be upfront here: I probably would not be familiar with Betzer’s work had it not been for him being friends and former colleagues with a film school professor of mine at Montana State University, Tenzin Phuntsog, who had Betzer Skype into our class once. (I’d venture to guess most cinephiles acquainted with 2000s indie film have only ever seen his name as a PA on Frownland.) I’ve held a deep admiration for Betzer’s work since, in part because of the quality of the works themselves but also the way in which talking to him showed, on a personal level, that being the kind of independent filmmaker that appeared in Fandor collections was an accessible dream. It is part of what makes it so sad that he has not made another feature since his first, back in 2014. But 10 years after what was apparently a disappointment for festival audiences, Young Bodies Heal Quickly deserves another look. 

Given a brief description, one might mistake Betzer’s first feature for Williams’ own debut, The Sweet East: A sweltering 16mm mid-Atlantic road trip replete with scorned youth in a fracturing American society, with touches of magical realism and even a prolonged stay with a neo-Nazi. But where The Sweet East often feels held back by its insistence on being a talky film—one feels it is as much for avid podcast listeners as for fans of off-the-beaten path ‘70s cinema—Young Bodies Heal Quickly is anything but chatty. Gabriel Croft plays his protagonist by way of grunts rather than words. 

The film opens with Croft climbing through a real barbed wire fence while wearing a red boxing helmet. Betzer cast Croft for this kind of physicality—he had found out about Croft because he was in Robert Greene’s independent wrestling documentary Fake It So Real (a film also shot by Sean Price Williams). The viscerality of Young Bodies Heal Quickly is immediately apparent from this opening scene, but what’s not clear is the specificity of the story. We don’t know who this man is (Croft’s character is credited as “Older brother”), why he’s jumping through this fence, or what the deal with the helmet is. Some of it can be gleaned by the unspoken, but the lack of clear context is strange, and actually adds to the tone of the film; there’s a mysterious quality to all the base and primal masculinity on display. 

“Older brother” emerges through the wilderness and arrives at some rural house, cawing out towards a window. He’s summoned “Younger brother” (Hale Lytle) and they’re up to no good: Bashing up a broken-down car with baseball bats and shooting at farm animals with a BB gun. When they turn their BBs to a pair of girls riding around on ATVs, “Older” starts to get his ass kicked by the girls, and “Younger” tries to intervene with a bat. He apparently kills the woman, and the other runs off, with “Older” in chase. We don’t see what “Older” does to the witness, but when the Constable (Judson Rosebush, who is not an actor but a pioneering multimedia artist and theorist) emerges from the scene of the crime he seems rather disturbed by what he’s found, breaking down in a field holding a prime piece of evidence: “Older’s” helmet. He brings this to a middle-aged woman, who helps the boys get on the road. Her relationship to the brothers is unsaid, but the credits tell us she’s “Mom” (Sandra L. Hale, Hale Lytle’s actual mother).

If you asked Betzer, he would tell you there are very specific roles that the characters play, and all the scenes and sequences have a clear grounding, although at the time of its premiere audiences and critics alike seemed baffled by a lack of narrative clarity. Dennis Harvey, writing for Variety, referred to the opening of Young Bodies Heal Quickly as “one among many basic plot points clearer in the film’s background materials than in the onscreen depiction.” While that is true, that begs a question of whether films should spell things out for the audience in the first place. (And, indeed, in Betzer’s commentary on the Factory 25 release, he sounds frustrated that narrative clarity became the main discussion around the film). 

Coming into it not with the expectations of a festival audience, and instead as a person seeing a film apparently forgotten in the sea of independents, Young Bodies Heal Quickly is a ride as enchanting as it is disorienting. It is unprosaic, with a narrative at once realist and opaque—I’d go as far as to say that watching Young Bodies Heal Quickly (along with any of Betzer’s shorts) is akin to the feeling one gets reading Faulkner or Joyce, where the even banal takes on an odd, messy aura. 

While Betzer’s characters often seemed trapped in a boring sort of world on the fringes, they desire first and foremost to break out—the brothers in Young Bodies Heal Quickly hit boredom with a baseball bat. The film is not an anti-boredom manifesto or something of that sort, though, but an observation of a reaction to the world. “Older” is not a thinking character so much as he is a reactive one, always in a fight-or-flight state except for the times he’s subduing himself by drinking beer. His hypermasculine, violent outbursts are often contrasted with “Younger’s” desire for gentleness. Where “Older” looks for a woman to get laid, “Younger” looks for a mother figure. Along their ride, the brothers start shacking up with a French woman (Julie Sokolowski) who’s a maid at some dingy Ocean City motel, and she immediately becomes a mother-and-whore figure to the two boys. There’s a great sequence where she is taking “Younger” around town, speaking to him in French. He can’t understand a word she is saying, but it’s immaterial, he could listen to her all day regardless. It represents an impossibility of the boys’ lives: Their inability to communicate or be communicated with. It’s in part why “Older” is so base, it is the best way he knows how to express himself. 

This comes to a head late in the movie as they stop at one of their final destinations: A mansion on the shores of the Chesapeake, being caretaken by an older man. The credits (and Betzer, outside of the movie) tell us this is “Dad” (Daniel P. Jones). This sequence was apparently one of the most confusing for audiences to put together the relationship, no doubt in part because the man is Australian. The sequence is also one of the most troubling: “Dad” has a simmering rage barely being held back, and even his calmer qualities imply a violence, like his obsession with MREs and collecting of Nazi memorabilia. There’s a palpable tension between “Dad” and “Older,” and apparently it went beyond just the impasse of father and son not being able to care for each other—according to Betzer, Croft was convinced that Jones was actually going to kill him. It comes through on screen, and their ultimate, violent confrontation—that happens as the movie devolves into total surreality during a Vietnam War reenactment—feels genuinely life or death, leaving the moments after all the more breathtaking. 

Betzer’s debut is as good as any of his contemporaries, but he is proof that not everyone from his prolific circle was able to break through. Perhaps it is just superficial, but as a fan of Betzer, how can I look at Eléonore Hendricks trying out stolen keys on every car in sight in Josh Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008) and not think of Ivan Dimitrov going from car-door handle to car-door handle in Betzer’s Ivan Runs Some Errands, Runs Amok (2004)? (It should be noted too, that Hendricks worked in the casting department for Young Bodies Heal Quickly.) Betzer’s sensibilities feel right on the pulse of the styles his generation of filmmakers were honing, and his deftness at directing DIY feels on par with his contemporaries. It is a shame that his career hasn’t borne the fruit of another feature, although he is still sporadically active, finishing two shorts in the subsequent decade. For whatever reason, Betzer has been relegated to the sidelines, but his work is as worthy of praise and attention as all the rest of the incredible low-budget work that emerged out of the US in the 2000s. 

Recently, MUBI staff writer Leonardo Goi asked if “Anyone knows what happened to Aaron Katz?” Goi argues that Katz was “The most talented of that ill-named Mumblecore generation, with a handful of early gems (DANCE PARTY USA, QUIET CITY, COLD WEATHER) that have long and undeservedly disappeared into digital oblivion. Let’s keep them alive.”

I would apply a similar sentiment towards Betzer, who, unlike Katz, was not properly recognized in his time, yet has shared a similar fate: Falling into obscurity and unable to get a project going. The rising tides of the 2000s DIY generation did not raise all ships, and except for a few incredibly notable exceptions, the sea has again receded. Katz’s last feature is going on seven years-old—and making a movie with Zoë Kravitz, John Cho and Greta Lee didn’t keep Katz from struggling for the better part of the decade to get another film off the ground. Needless to say, the deck that is the current independent film market was stacked even higher against a filmmaker whose subjects are as abrasive and off-putting as Betzer’s. Maybe, with luck, the tides will turn once again. Maybe alternative networks of independent filmmakers will start to rise through the cracks again, and new blood can be injected into the film scene while revitalizing the old players that have been left behind by an indie film world once again turning corporate. If things do start to change, I just hope Betzer gets another chance.

Alex Lei is writer and filmmaker currently based in Baltimore. He can usually be found on Twitter.

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