It's tempting to imagine director Larry Clark (Kids, Bully) as a stranger crouched in the bushes outside the local high school with his hand pumping underneath his trench coat, but that picture isn't entirely truthful. His bad films, like the notorious Ken Park, merely make it seem that way. An accurate mental image of Larry Clark should also include a jaunty beret atop his head and a distinguished pipe between his lips -- for Clark is a renowned artiste as well as a shrub-lurking deviate. He's the world's leading teenage-flesh auteur!
Clark's latest, Wassup Rockers, retains many of the hallmarks of his previous films -- a loose narrative, a nonprofessional cast, a keen interest in the fringes of contemporary teen culture -- while also experimenting with a more subdued and at times upbeat approach to the film's subject matter. The result is a strangely whimsical, poorly crafted film that leaps from one cinematic style to another without warning or reason, aiming for coming-of-age pathos in one scene and B-movie camp in the next.
The film opens with a lengthy cinema verité-style interview of a 15-year-old Latino from South Central Los Angeles named Jonathan (Jonathan Velasquez). He sits shirtless on his bed and mumbles discursively about sex and his group of friends while the camera caresses his flesh. The interview serves no narrative purpose, and much of what Jonathan says is unintelligible, but it sets the sexually charged tone that pervades Clark's films and gives them their voyeuristic feel.
After the interview, Rockers shifts into a more conventional, if somewhat aimless, narrative mode. Jonathan, it turns out, is the leader of a group of Latino skaters whose love of punk rock and tight, tapered jeans makes them outcasts in their own neighborhood, where hip-hop culture reigns supreme and gang violence is unavoidable. One day Jonathan and his buddies decide to make their way to a favorite skating spot at Beverly Hills High. There they run into two sexy teens, Jade and Nikki, who invite them to hang out at a mansion just up the hill. But before the guys can get on their way, a racist cop stops the crew and tries to ticket them for skating on school property (in Beverly Hills, apparently, skateboarding is a crime). After a tedious "interrogation" scene, the boys make a dash for it and all but one of them manage to escape, skating away with their hair on fire.
The crew then heads up to the mansion to meet the girls. Immediately Jonathan and Kiko (Francisco Pedrasa) head off with Jade and Nikki to make out. However, rather than swapping bodily fluids, Kiko and Nikki instead trade stories about their lives and the different cultures they live in (while in their underwear, with a camera zooming in on their downy flesh, of course).
The boys' blissful situation takes a serious turn when a marauding band of Beverly Hills High brats -- that's right -- crashes the party and attacks Jonathan and Kiko for making out with their girls. A melee ensues, the cops are called, and once again the crew is on the run. The rest of the film is devoted to their efforts to get back to South Central, and it's at this point in the film that Clark seems to give up and say, "Aw, what the hell, let's just throw the kitchen sink in there, too."
As the boys hop fences and dash through backyards, they encounter one cartoonish, clichéd character after another, none of whom in any way represents a real-world person. First, there's the gaggle of fashion-industry types who fetishize the boys as sexual curiosities, then there's the gun-happy superstar who shoots first and asks questions later, and finally there's the vampy, middle-aged actress (Janice Dickinson) who inexplicably administers a bubble bath to Kiko. These wild escapades are actually pretty fun to watch, in a train-wreck sort of way. B-movie shenanigans have their place. Unfortunately that place isn't in a film whose entire first act is firmly rooted in documentary-like realism.
Rockers does hold a few pleasures, though. Chief among them are the performances by Velasquez, Pedrasa, and the rest of the skater crew. Even in the worst, cliché-ridden scenes, these untrained actors effortlessly express their dynamism and vitality. In fact, they're so good that it's hard not to imagine their performances stirring interest in the film. Yet, no matter how likeable an actor or an ensemble may be, a movie is only as good as its story -- and Wassup Rockers is a bad story poorly told.
Wassup with that couch?