Kids today. Is there a filmmaker alive who has burned through more miles of celluloid chronicling the state of the nation's youth than photographer-turned-writer/director Larry Clark? If there is, the footage isn't making it to a movie studio.
Clark has been responsible for a steady stream of variations on the theme. Kids (1995) set the tone with its off-handedly harrowing portrait of teenage sex and drug use. It also launched the careers of Rosario Dawson, Leo Fitzpatrick and Chloe Sevigny. Bully (2001) introduced us to another group of teens and explored the dynamic responsible for leading them to commit a murder together that none of them would have committed alone. Next came Ken Park (2002), in which the director returned to the subject of sexual practices among contemporary young people. The threads running through all of these movies: the frightening speed at which kids grow up today, and the space in which absent, distracted or indifferent adults allow them to do so.
Wassup Rockers represents a significant departure for Clark. All the main characters in his new film are unknown teenaged actors, of course - hey, this guy isn't about to start helming Bourne installments anytime soon - but they don't carry guns, take drugs, expend a great deal of time or energy on sex, or so much as light up a Lucky Strike. What they do is skateboard.
Jonathan (Jonathan Velasquez), Kico (Francisco Pedrasa), Milton (Milton Velasquez), Porky (Usvaldo Panameno), Eddie (Eddie Velasquez), Louie (Luis Salgado) and Carlos (Carlos Ramirez) are Latino teens of Salvadoran descent who live in South Central Los Angeles. They share the turf, at their peril, with black youth, who in many cases do carry guns, and do not approve of the their taste in clothes or music. Hence the source of the film's title. The Latino friends - who range in age from 13 to 17 - play in a band and favor long hair and tight clothes. In the hip-hop-dominated world of South Central, a fashion choice is just one of the multitude of things that can get you killed.
Members of the group are routinely confronted and derided with the greeting "wassup rockers," the term denoting a lack of acceptance in the extreme.
If The Odyssey had been about skateboarding, it might have been a lot like this. The picture takes its time getting started, offering an unhurried look at the boys' lives on a typical day. One mother is a stripper who gets home about the time her sons get up. They skateboard to school, but appear to cut the educational portion of their day short. The next thing we know, they're making the long journey by subway, bus and "borrowed" car to the foreign land of Beverly Hills, where they plan to do nothing more than test their skills on the local high school's ramps and railings.
The group encounters the police twice in the course of the film, and the difference between the two confrontations is telling. They haven't gotten far from home in their junker when two bicycle cops pull them over. Informed that no one in the car possesses an ID, much less a driver's license or the registration to the car, one of the officers says, "You know we have to impound the vehicle, right?" and then continues his interrogation with, "Hey, you like The Ramones?" He lets the kids go on their way.
Once they've crossed into the land of 90210, it's a different story, though equally hilarious. In one priceless scene, an uptight patrolman puts the kibosh on their skateboard practice and gives them a hard time just for the moronic fun of it. He refers to them again and again as Mexicans. He appears to have confused them with another bunch of boarders he's warned before. And he goes ballistic when the boys can't remember their zip codes. "We don't know zip codes," one of them laughs. The cop isn't laughing. He's even less amused when the kids tire of tolerating him, take off in too many directions for him to deal with, and taunt him by grabbing his lunch from the squad car and chowing down.
Eventually a pair of wealthy local girls invite the boys home. The story shifts tone following a lovely sequence in which one of the kids sits on a bed with one of the girls and the two inquire about each other's lives. There's a rare simplicity and tenderness to the exchange, and it leaves us caught off-guard when all hell breaks loose moments later.
Beverly Hills boyfriends barge in and start a fight, which they lose before calling the police. In no mood for a third confrontation with the law, the boarders hightail it out of the mansion and begin a long, strange journey home through the backyards of the rich. Remember the great Burt Lancaster film, The Swimmer? Clark certainly appears to. He evokes it with apparent relish as the kids jump wall after wall and discover ever-weirder hidden worlds.
Wassup Rockers shows us Clark at his loosest and most lighthearted. Through it all, these young men are admirably accepting, good-natured, loyal and resilient. The director's theme here is their energy and innate joy as much as anything else. No matter what society throws at them, they let it slide off and move on to the next adventure. The writing never gets in the way. The boys' performances combine a refreshing absence of technique with an abundance of charisma. As for the music, well, it's too damned loud. But, hey, I'm old. And besides, a little hearing loss is a small price to pay for such a high-spirited, revealing look at lives of the young and the restless.