Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise is no surprise brazen about its interest in young bodies. Whether the filmmaker himself is into them or not is irrelevant (and he’s made varying comments on the subject in the past, beginning when he was photographing them and continuing through the release of his previous film, the controversial Kids). However, from the first frame, the film is plainly preoccupied by nubile, smooth, undeveloped forms. There is a hint of metaphor in this fascination, a sense that the real issue has to do with youth’s promise, verve, and innocence. The two central kids in Another Day are victims of incompetent and ill-intentioned adults, but they exhibit an admirable resilience, at least for a few minutes.
This tenacity gives the kids more substance than your average CK-1 model. But it’s filtered through Clark’s sometimes creepy sensibility; it’s like he gets off on the kids’ fears and violences. The camera introduces Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) with a close-up of his torso, teasing you with a moving, caressing kind of shot that takes your eye to his pubic hair, then breaks off. He’s in bed with his girl Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner), but the fact that she’s going to serve as support for Bobbie’s characterization is already plain. Bobbie wakes up, heads off to work. That is, he tosses on some baggy skater pants and a tee-shirt, pads off in his sneakers to the local high school where he’s designing to bust open a vending machine and steal the stash of coins.
The camera follows Bobbie as he scampers, prowls, and zigzags down the street and into the building, down the hallway and into the dingy room. He’s in mid-heist when a guard shows up and the scene erupts into bloody mayhem. Enraged by the guy’s existence as much as the fact that he’s interrupted the “job,” Bobbie is insane and energized enough by that anger that he escapes after being severely beaten. Soon after, he’s back home in bed, being nursed by Rosie and his “Uncle” Mel (James Woods, as living dead as ever). Mel’s prescription includes rest and heroin, and he seems all set to move on. But the relationship between the elder junkie and the younger is just starting.
Mel, a small-time thief who still thinks he’s gonna make the big score, is scoping for a kid to do some dirty work, crawling through air shafts and such. He decides that Bobbie’s perfect for the job, mainly because the kid is star-struck and dopey enough to do it. Mel and his long-time junkie girlfriend Sid (Melanie Griffith, in her strongest performance since Night Moves) sort of adopt Bobbie and Rosie. The newly-formed family takes off on a road trip, impress the kids by buying them new clothes, get roaring drunk at some skeezy club. They steal a lot of drugs, then sell the product out of a yuckola motel room to yuckola murderous clients. Shit goes wrong, guns are fired, and suddenly what might have been some deviant parenting looks completely monstrous, all selfish and ugly and exploitative.
You know this violation is going on before the film clarifies it, of course, but you might have imagined that Bobbie and Rosie were going to get wise or escape or something. Sid and Rosie spend some time girl-talking and Bobbie seems so genuinely thrilled to be learning some kind of ropes from the expert asshole Mel, that for a couple of seconds the kids’ deliriously naive perception of events might have held sway.
Given that it’s James Woods in charge, though, the turn to full-blown horror, the sheer brutality of Mel’s world-view (briefly glimpsed in his treatment of Sid, for instance) is less than shocking (he plays worms like no one else). Sid’s a victim who goes along because she sees no options, Bobbie’s a victim waiting, perhaps, to become a worm. And Rosie is a cross between Juliette Lewis in Kalifornia and Chloe Sevigny in Kids, fragile, trusting, desperately hopeful. You want her to make the right choice, mostly because of the warmth and naive bravery conveyed by Gregson Wagner’s relatively subtle performance (she’s also very good and effectively restrained in the otherwise indulgent Two Girls and A Guy). But the film needs a victim to make its point about the callousness of its primary characters.
The most cruel assaults on Rosie take place offscreen, which means that you envision their luridness beyond what even Clark could cook up. The thing is, if Clark’s images are often stunning, his moralizing and storytelling remain ungainly (Harmony Korine’s script for Kids had clunky spots too, but this film (written by Christopher B. Landon and based on Eddie Little’s book) is both smoother and clumsier, cornball and engagingly rough. Even if you do see it coming, the turn to climactic violence is still creepy and sentimental, neither of which is particularly good.
Where Kids was surprising because the title characters were so mean and careless without any visible adult supervision, the new movie is more into indictments, none very new. The adults demonstrate all kinds of bad, sick, and base behaviors to their impressionable dependents. Though Sid has a sense of right and wrong even a sense of pain, she never makes enough noise to disrupt the no-options narrative that Mel spins so mindlessly. But his abuse of Rosie is both mean and predictable, melodramatic and nasty, a mercifully rare combination.