2006Director: Larry Clark
Cast: Jonathan Velasquez, Francisco Pedrasa, Milton Velasquez
ou can hold your own opinion as to whether the desire to antagonize is a credit or a debit for an author—and if shock as a prime mover is actually a precious cover for deficient inspiration. There is no doubt, however, that authenticity, distinctiveness, and moving people deeply are lofty goals that can be at odds with the instinct to shock—insofar as contrivance has a knack for overwhelming intrinsic value and even overcoming the freshness of novelty.
These were the sad symptoms of Larry Clark’s most recent splash, 2001’s Bully, a project for which “inspired by a true story” served as the worst kind of excuse for phony profanity. But while all of the above is necessary preface for a piece about Clark, it is thankfully—and shockingly—unimportant with regard to his latest, Wassup Rockers, a film that follows seven Latino skaters, day-tripping out of South Central. The exploitation expert isn’t taking these kinds of gambles here, and he gets past them rather early. A drive-by over the opening credits, and then a frank conversation about sex—in the light spirit of sympathizing, no less—dispense with these issues, as the movie establishes credentials with little fanfare. It is a massive relief for the viewer and a weight off of Clark’s shoulders.
Wassup is not down to shock. The cast of unknown actors (the seven boys keep their real names onscreen) is natural without effort, and the film creates deep and casual access into their lives. These are nice and friendly kids, and they inhabit an automatic affection. Instead of rough drugs, they do candy. They vomit because they play too much on the playground. Rather than giving us a fight, the film shows us a teacher restraining a big guy as he picks on one of the rockers—creating the far more chilling effect of unused anger in a jeering schoolyard.
But mostly this film doesn’t bother to exploit because it’s a comedy. The hopeless romantic rocker attempts to drown himself in the sink, and keeps coming up for air until he is caught. The cop that crashes their (underage) car-driving party informs the group that he once saw the Ramones play, and that “they rocked pretty hard.” The film has a rather true tone, and it can only accomplish as much as it does by making the boys hardscrabble but nonthreatening–not a staple Clarkian type.
The meat of film is the welcome, and even deserved, intrusion by the rockers into Beverly Hills. Two girls direct from your local high school cafeteria film fall for their tight pants and failed front-sides, and they have them over for sex, conversation, and Vitamin Water. Silly though that might sound, the cultural crossover feels very real and sublimely odd. To say “hilarity ensues” would be fair, if inarticulate. The boys are chased out of this first mansion, and they proceed to hop several walls into others—as they hit up an L.A. art party, a rustic Hollywood director, and a soused Janice Dickinson. People are eventually killed in this film, and the camera doesn’t linger, because it’s only a joke. Wassup becomes a fast-paced satire of L.A., with its various pretensions and prejudices duly ridiculed.
This descent into farce, though, is quite clearly a cover for indecision about where to take the movie. One of the best scenes in the film involves a Beverly Hills beat cop Rambo who catches the skaters in flagrante, and then works hard to intimidate them (“How old are you?” “What’s your address?” And how old are you?”). The scene is completely familiar, but Clark’s touch is so gentle here that it is surprisingly beautiful and sad. Contrast that with an unfortunate later scene, in which a detective lets a rich murderer know he’ll be protected from justice; this is latter-day John Waters silliness, and it’s really too bad.
The purposeful lack of subtlety signals disorganized ideas. Eventually, we have to suffer through a “they think they’re better than us” monologue—which is a chore, and clearly Wassup’s strategy for wrapping its ideas together. The film is ultimately not about what the rockers learn, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s about what the audience sees through this small window into the world. That’s the point of good realism, and this movie’s first half functions well enough to justify that label. But Clark is not confident enough in his product, and pulls stunts like invoking a network of Latino maids—the underbelly of the Hills!—to help save the boys. It is refreshing that, with this film, he is no longer flaunting pride in being a malign influence, but he should pay more attention to his strengths. He is an old man who makes movies about young people because he thinks they’re interesting enough to carrying their own stories. As is most profoundly displayed in Wassup’s scene with the beat cop—the rockers are savvy enough to understand posturing and pleasant enough to laugh it off—the kids in this film are his best yet, and he should’ve just let them have the screen to themselves.
Wassup Rockers is currently screening in limited release.
By: Jonas Oransky
Published on: 2006-07-03