Every one of Larry Clark’s film has a distinct aesthetic and caters to the filmmaker’s fetishes. Since “Kids,” he has worked with professional actors in every one of his films. There are always plenty of young unknowns present but even “Ken Park” had a bit part for Amanda Plummer. In that regard, “Wassup Rockers” represent the directors trying to get back to his roots. It’s a film cast entirely with young kids right off the streets, with zero professional training.
Going into “Wassup Rockers,” I was expecting the same-old, same-old from the director. The movie opens with a shirtless teenage boy delivering a rambling monologue about his friends. This segues into a kid on the sidewalk getting shot in the head. Oh hai, Larry. However, “Wassup Rockers” slowly reveals itself as a slightly different beast. The story revolves around seven Latino and Hispanic boys living in South Central. The friends break stereotypes by being into skateboarding, punk rock, and tight jeans, something they are constantly challenged for every day. After a while, the group find themselves stuck in Beverley Hills. The boys just want to skate but adversity waits around every corner. Two long days follow before they finally wander back home.
The kids of “Wassup Rockers” are different then the lot Clark usually deals with. They pass around a beer in one scene and the boys are constantly trying to get laid. Beyond that? No drugs. No brutal beatings. No teenage orgies. The Rockers don’t go looking for trouble. Trouble finds them. The escalating encounters frequently come off as comic when they aren’t tragic. Clark is always as interested in his young actors’ personality as he is their bodies but, for once, the ratio seems to skew towards personality.
The movie has a comic vein not usually seen in Clark’s work. An encounter with a racist police officer quickly escalates to humor, when the kids finally get fed up with the man’s bullshit. One of the best reoccurring jokes involves two of the boys’ constant attempts to get laid. Each time they come close but are interrupted before getting pass second base. Bicycle cops cut a car trunk rendezvous short, in a nice, visual gag. The guys drawl the attention of a pair of preppy, white Beverly Hills girls. This seems to be going well enough, until the girls’ brothers come home, forcing a sudden escape. The best moment in the film is buried here: An intimate discussion between a boy raised in the ghetto and a girl living in luxury, illustrating the differences between their two lives.
The movie takes several shots at celebrity culture. The boys stumble into a party filled with arty type hipsters. The partiers are depicted as shallow and surface-obsessed. One, in particular, takes a predatory, sexual interest in Jonathan, the lead rocker. (Whether or not this is Larry Clark commenting on his own films depends on how self-aware you think the filmmaker is.) These scenes are funny and brisk. However, immediately following that, the movie takes a sharp turn. Violence suddenly, shockingly erupts during an encounter with an old actor obviously meant to be Clint Eastwood. The movie zags back to comedy with Janice Dickinson’s cameo as an alcoholic version of herself. This ends in violence too and it’s hard to tell if we’re supposed to laugh or cringe.
The kids themselves are a problem. Some are given distinct personalities. Jonathan is the leader and sexually irresistible to everyone around him. Kico is his best friend, sarcastic and humorous. Porky is depressive, love-lorn, and prone to ineffectual suicide attempts. Milton, who has the embarrassing nickname “Spermball,” is trying to loose weight and reinvent himself as a serious young man. Many of the characters aren’t even given that much personally. Sadly, there aren’t any Rosario Dawsons, Chloe Sevignys, or even a Leo Fitzpatrick in this cast. The performances are frequently rough. Jonathan and Milton show a certain charm but even their line-readings can be stilted and unnatural. It takes the viewer out of what is supposed to be a street-level, reality-based film.
That’s “Wassup Rockers” biggest flaws. If it weren’t for the inexperienced cast or lagging pace, this would be a good introduction to Clark’s work, as it generally lacks the transgressive edge of his other films. Had the film been a little better written and a little better acted, it would probably rank among the filmmaker’s best work. As it is, “Wassup Rockers” is an interesting, though not entirely successful, experiment. [Grade: C+]