Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers is more finger pointing than his other sympathetic, provocative, and exploitive portrayals of the insulated and often sociopathic worlds of teenagers. In response to a decade of being dismissed as chicken hawk, Clark convincingly indicts all of LA as such. At first, the film is typical of Clark’s stunning, naturalist, artless visual and narrative style, and proves notable for exploring one of the overlooked corners of Los Angeles. Wassup Rockers tells the story of a group of high school Latino boys in the South Central ghetto who attempt to escape their depression and fear through their love of punk rock. The music and skateboarding subculture they adopt are the boys’ attempts to trade their incomprehensible sorrows for the more prosaic pains they associate with the white world. For longer than you’d think he could get away with, Clark shows the youths at a tony Beverly Hills skate spot, attempting tricks they know are beyond them. They fall, again and again, with a mix of crazed searching and mewling pain, looking more like cutters than extras from Jackass.
Their self-mutilation does nothing to help them. The universe of privilege they sneak into holds even more torment for the scroungy looking non-white kids than their already unbearable normal lives. When they enter this upscale hell, Clark becomes a perverse shaman, transporting them on a bleak and costly quest. In the opening scene of the film, the nervous yet captivating lead, Jonathan Velasquez, asks the camera what story he should tell. His voice is filled with such eagerness to please the unseen Clark behind the camera that the torments that follow seem extra sadistic. In Beverly Hills, the rockers encounter film industry insiders and their strangely adult children, who either harass or fetishize the boys. At first, the youths are amused, goading on a cop who tries to arrest them for invented crimes and bedding the blonde tarts who want to taunt their usual boyfriends by taking the punks home. At every turn though, the skaters are wide-eyed as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and soon as eager to get home. They’re portrayed as weirdly, distinctively feminine, always the object of leering and malicious gazes. The story turns into dark slapstick, and the camerawork becomes a parody of Clark’s usual style, all jump cuts and nipples, then the whole thing turns deeply tragic. In a nod to genre, the least attractive and compelling of the boys get knocked off with sarcastic brutality, and the handsome ones are drawn repeatedly into the white world, only to be exploited thoroughly. Though its clear good looks can take you far, it’s equally clear in Wassup Rockers that they don’t take you anywhere worthwhile. The camera fondles the leads, while they endure humiliating manhandlings in privileged LA. In Wassup Rockers’, Clark, as he bloodies and kills his pathetic, endearing, unlikely punks, asserts the destructive power of his mission to mine the wastelands of youth even as he pursues it passionately as ever.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.