Already an Emmy nominee for Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, Thembi Banks has made a splash at this year’s Sundance with her feature film debut, Young. Wild. Free. Sundance previously introduced the world to her short film Baldwin Beauty in 2020, and now she’s proven her chops with a much longer runtime. A beautifully told and heartbreaking tale of a beleaguered youth longing for freedom, Young. Wild. Free. makes use of everything from costumes and cinematography to music and powerhouse performances from its fresh-faced cast to paint a vivid portrait of its characters.
Young. Wild. Free. follows troubled teenager Brandon (played by Euphoria‘s Algee Smith), whose heavy responsibilities within his family weigh him down on a daily basis. Struggling financially and academically, his less-than-idyllic life of caring for his siblings and his not altogether present mother (Sanaa Lathan) is upended when he means a manic pixie dream girl by the name of Cassidy (On My Block‘s Sierra Capri). Her carefree mentality and dangerous love of adrenaline goad him into living life as he had never before imagined, even if the result is Bonnie and Clyde levels of catastrophic.
Screen Rant spoke to Banks while at the Sundance Film Festival, where the director charted her nonlinear journey from episodic television to a feature film debut and shared how she knew Smith and Capri were the right stars to lead Young. Wild. Free.
Thembi Banks Talks Young. Wild. Free.
Screen Rant: You’ve done shorts and television episodes, but Young. Wild. Free. was your feature film debut. What was that transition like?
Thembi Banks: It was not straightforward. I started the process of trying to prep my feature and get things in order, and I got my first episode of Insecure right at the beginning [of that]. I got the first producers to sign on and an episode of Insecure at the same time. Then we had to stop shooting the film because of COVID, and then in between the wait time, I got a couple more episodes of TV. All throughout, I was fine-tuning my skills and sharpening my toolset.
It was interesting that it all happened that way, but I am really grateful for the journey. I learned to not have any expectations, because it’s not straightforward; it’s wiggles and holes and going backward and forward.
I really love the color palette of the film, especially when it comes to Sierra’s character, Cass. Can you talk about the intentionality behind that and how you brought it together?
Thembi Banks: Yeah, it was really a collaborative effort. I know people always say this, but it was truly me with my costume designer, the amazing Neishea Lemle, and my production designer, Tom Castronovo. We had meetings and sessions where we all had to make sure that we were in lockstep. Especially around Sierra’s character, we had to make sure that our ideas blended well and that it was organic once our presence came onscreen, because things changed there. That was very intentional. I had ideas, but they made it better.
Algee already made a big impression with Judas and the Black Messiah and Euphoria, but how did you know he was right for Brandon? It’s a complicated character, and he’s carrying so much on his shoulders.
Thembi Banks: Yeah, it was a complicated character. But I would say he was pretty easy to cast once we saw him, because he just embodied everything that we needed Brandon to be. We needed him to be vulnerable, and we needed him to be a little fragile, but we also needed people to root for him. He needed to have wit and intelligence; goals and dreams and a subdued but very present inner strength.
Algee did that all so beautifully which, like I said, was hard. We would see auditions from people, and they’d have one but they wouldn’t have the other, or they’d have a little bit of something but still not be just right. But Algee was just so perfect.
Without spoiling the ending, how did you work towards justifying it, but also not telegraphing it?
Thembi Banks: You start from the end, and you go back right through your script. You just make sure that you are being very detail-oriented and specific, and that you’re doing the work. Then you also ook at your scripts and make sure that each moment is earned; that nothing is cliche or feels overwrought or underdeveloped. You just really stay in tune with the characters and the intention, and you just go over and over and over it with a fine tooth comb.
As an On My Block enthusiast, I wish to know if you were one also. How did Sierra come into the picture?
Thembi Banks: No, but I kind of became one because once Sierra came into my world, so did On My Block. When I tell you that girl cannot go outside without people running up to her, going crazy, asking for pictures and autographs and hugs. She has such a huge, strong fan base from that show, and I love that.
I think, in a way, Cassidy was an even more complicated character than Brandon, because there was so much to layer in. Her audition was also really great, her chemistry with Algee was really great, and what really struck me is her edginess. She had this callousness about her, but there was also a layer that made you want to lean in and say, “What’s going on with that girl?” I think that it was a huge challenge for her because this was like entering a new phase. On My Block was a very different character, but she was very much willing to embrace the newness and the challenges of reintroducing herself to the world.
The title feels almost ironic, in that you can see Brandon trying to live up to the mantra of being young, wild, and free, but his circumstances keep pulling him back. How do you balance those two extremes in the story?
Thembi Banks: The best way to describe it is one of the ways that the original writer of the script talks about the title and where it came from. It’s even presented in that way, with periods, on purpose. I really do think about it as chapters in a book; chapters in his life that are parts and pieces of the journey. He is very much trying to tap into all those elements, like you said, but his role in his family doesn’t allow him to.
I think you have to understand the importance of all three of those in every human’s life. I don’t care how old or how young you are, but enjoying your youth and having a chance to be wild and free is so important for your psyche.
Absolutely. With this having been your first feature film, what were the biggest challenges you had to overcome or the most surprising elements of production?
Thembi Banks: Definitely COVID shutting us down. The most surprising part and the biggest challenge, to be honest, was having patience and knowing that we would get back on track when it’s right. We had to trust that the universe would align things and people and situations, because so much changed. Casting changed, producers changed—my point of view changed. We went back in and fine-tuned things in the script and the story, which was a beautiful process but also a painful one.
Finally, I’m very excited to see your future projects. What can you tell me about 1266 with Gabourey Sidibe? How far along you are in that?
Thembi Banks: Yes, we’re in the beginning phases of prepping to shoot the pilot, which is very exciting. I’m so excited to work with Gabourey; she is so dynamic and so smart, and she has such wisdom and beauty about her that I just can’t wait to show the world. I’m so grateful that she is trusting me with this, because this is her own personal life story. She was a phone sex operator.
It is going to be so fun, but also layered with so much to say about sexuality, beauty standards, and gender dynamics. We’re gonna have a good time.
About Young. Wild. Free.
Being a teenager is rough, and Brandon (Algee Smith, 2017 African-American Film Critics Association Best Ensemble Cast winner for Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit) is no different. Between struggling in school, caring for his two younger siblings, and having just been let go from his job, Brandon often uses his art as an escape from the confines of his subdued day-to-day life. Enter Cassidy (Sierra Capri, On My Block), a bedazzled bad girl dripping in confidence, freedom, and danger. Lured in by her whimsy, Brandon teams up with Cassidy, seamlessly slipping into the role of Clyde to her Bonnie as they make their way down an increasingly perilous path.
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Young. Wild. Free. premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, and it will have another screening on January 27.