Stephen Holden of the New York Times got pretty darn perturbed about Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers, branding it a “chicken hawk” movie. It can’t be denied that Clark’s latest opus serves up the requisite lot of bare-chested teen boys, a twink motif going back to Clark’s 1971 photo classic, Tulsa. Yet I found it hard to get mad at Wassup Rockers, which opens this Friday at the Kendall Square. Its grimy-old-man ogling seems harmless — Clark’s feelings for his underage cast appear more affectionate and avuncular than exploitative.
CLARK’S KIDS: are all right, more than all right.
Who would have expected such a sweet, good-natured movie after the chic ugliness and depravity of Kids (1995) and Bully (2001)? This time, the kids are all right, more than all right. Our heroes are a motley crew of Salvadorian high-schoolers from the inner city of LA who carry no guns, brandish no knives. Their ambitions are reasonable ones: (a) to play their Latino-flavored, Ramones-influenced punk rock, and (b) to find more and more challenging spots from which to leap on their skateboards. This search for a skateboard Zion becomes the central story, as our seven homeboy lads dare to venture far past their insular neighborhood.
Their quest becomes a mock-heroic one (city busses instead of steeds!), a mini Lord of the Rings, with formidable enemies and fair maidens along the way. One alien neighborhood melts into another; it all leads to the far, far country that is Beverly Hills High, site of the near-mythic Nine Steps. The ultimate skateboard challenge! The plot has holes, and the movie is too schematic: stereotyped racist, rightist Anglos in Beverly Hills versus the valiant Latinos.
But the Salvadorian teens are a very amiable lot, extremely comfortable on camera, and at ease improvising dialogue. One of them could be a Hollywood heartthrob: Jonathan Velasquez, a 14-year-old ladies’ man with a pubescent moustache, a Clark Gable in the making. “I think you have to be born looking like that,” said Clark, marveling at his little star when we talked last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. “Those eyes, and that moustache already at 12 years old. God is kind to him. He has to do nuthin.’ Women all want to fuck him!”
Clark met several of his cast one day at Venice Beach, where he was doing a fashion shoot for a French magazine featuring Tiffany. Kico and Porky came skating by. “Look at these kids, ethnic, out of place,” he remembered thinking, and “It would be great to do a documentary about their lives, but I don’t do documentaries.” But Clark was taken back to South Central LA, where he met Jonathan, Spermball, and the others. He decided on a fictional story, with the Salvadorians playing themselves.
“They have no regrets, but it took some convincing. These aren’t people who are going to show a lot of emotion to strangers, especially some white man who says he’s going to put them in a movie. It took me going out there every week for a year and a half. Show up, be there, be reliable. Every Saturday, not bullshitting them, I’d pick them up and take them skating. These kids are really good kids, They don’t drink, they don’t smoke pot, they are in the moment. They want to have fun, listen to punk music.
“The pressure to wear baggy clothes and look like gangsters and listen to hip-hop is enormous. Where they live, it’s gangs everywhere. Sixty homicides, it’s dangerous to go to school.”
But that’s where Clark’s cast was, in high-school class, when he came alone to Toronto. “One of the kids said to me, ‘When you’re through with the film, will you still be around?’ I’m around. I’m taking everyone skating next Saturday.”