Ten years ago, I made the film Kids and used real New York City street kids in the principal roles (discovering Rosario Dawson and Chloe Sevigny). Similarly, Wassup Rockers will feature South Central Los Angeles street kids in the leading roles.
–Larry Clark, “Director’s Note”
“My name is Jonathan Velasquez,” says a skinny kid, seated on his bed, rubbing his naked chest distractedly. “I’m 14. I skate and we’re making a band,” he says, in addition to noting friends’ peculiar habits (“Every time he takes a shower, he jerks off”), the things that amuse him (“He curses in Spanish, it’s funny”). Jonathan’s (Jonathan Velasquez) first appears in Wassup Rockers in split screen, so you get looks at his chest-up profile and front view. His surroundings are unadorned, his affect youthful, half-awake and poised, as if about to step into some other dimension.
Jonathan here seems “real” in the sense that he seems a documentary subject, an awkward but dynamic force, confident and jaunty, like he knows who he is despite or because of his lingering childishness. As it turns out, though Larry Clark’s new film is acted by nonprofessionals, it is wildly fictional — aside from the premise, which is brilliant, the plot rips off any number of classic teen rebel movies, from James Dean’s signature piece to The Warriors, one of Clark’s cited inspirations. It is also maladroitly moralistic, a facile indictment of rich folks, white folks, and adults (however these identities might be lumped together, with the pièce de résistance being the lunatic alcoholic played by professional lunatic Janice Dickerson, who meets a righteously grim end, electrocuted in her bathtub with her chandelier).
Still, Wassup Rockers celebrates its kids, lets them talk and skate and play music. This is all good, because the kids are sensational. Not in a pretty, packaged, or predictable way, but honestly great film subjects, compelling storytellers and at ease with each other, even with a camera crew following them around. Jonathan and his friends are skater punks. They wear tight jeans and t-shirts, they listen to punk bands like the Ramones and the Reliants, and also play in their own band, thrashing away at their guitars in a garage. The backstory is that Clark came across a couple of his young subjects skateboarding in L.A., then 13-year-old Kico, a.k.a. Francisco Pedrasa and Usvaldo “Porky” Panameno. He asked to photograph them for a spread in the French magazine, Rebel, and, following the success of that venture, asked to film them some two years later.
The storyline follows a day in the life of Jonathan and his mostly Salvadoran friends, including Kico, Carlos Ramirez, and Milton (also known as Spermball) Velasquez, and begins, just after Jonathan’s monologue, with Arturo shot dead on the sidewalk, victim of a drive-by and almost immediately, subject of an elaborate memorial at the site he went down — teddy bears, candles, and flowers crowd the little bit of pavement, instant, local respect paid to a child killed. The boys blow off school, visit the memorial, cross themselves, then skate away.
And this is what Wassup Rockers does well: with punk songs pounding under mobile frames of stunts and speed, it shows the energy of their skating, the joy they take in it. Decried by classmates and neighbors who prefer hip-hop and see their tight pants as bitch gear, the boys find their own distractions, including a trip into Beverly Hills to take a run at the famous “Nine Stairs” at Beverly Hills High.
As soon as they get off the bus (one of two they have to take to get there, following the confiscation of their car by a suspicious cop), they’re stopped by another cop. While white girls at the school admire their “asses,” a cop interrupts their tricks. “Where you from?” he asks. “We’re from the ghetto.” When they scramble their addresses (“We don’t know zip codes”), the cop grows impatient (“You don’t belong here”), at which point they skate away again, “Never surrender” pulsing in the background.
Their invasion of Beverly Hills takes a conventional course: they find the white girls’ house, entertain them sexually (one girl says Kico’s uncircumcised penis “looks dangerous”), hang out by the pool and admire the extraordinary wealth the girls take for granted. But if the movie’s situation is frustratingly unoriginal, the boys don’t know it. Their self-possession is entirely their own. Kico, in knit cap and underwear amid pink pillows, explains to one girl what his life is like in South Central.
With intense close ups on his lips and eyes as he speaks, Kico details his “other” world: “They call us rockers and shit. They think we’re rockers ’cause we wear our hair long and we wear tight pants, like tight clothes and stuff. We don’t care, but they say, ‘Wassup rockers?'” Though he won’t say he’s “close to his friends (“That’s gay”), he plainly is, and poor little rich girl admires him for it. For her, “friends stab you in the back all the time. You ignore it, you get used to it. That’s how it is in Beverly Hills, I guess.” And so Kico, who has his “own style,” is deemed “cool.”
Of course, the respite ends, just as Kico agrees at last to take his pants off, as the girls’ generic brothers arrive in their prep school jackets and try to beat up the intruders (their escape involves negotiating a stairway that resembles the one Telly bounded over following his deflowering of Virgin #1 in Kids). The boys make their way to an adult pool party, where they’re adored (“Hi cutie!”, or better, “You guys are so fucking punk rock! They’re like the Mexican Ramones or something!”) and objectified (think: the boys’ visit to the art gallery in La Haine).
Though disaster is inevitable, the movie makes its point: the boys are cool, utterly and unstoppably. And, as much as Wassup Rockers admires them, it also can’t help but exploit them. A sometimes provocative admixture of love, lust, and distance, the movie works its DIY look and amateurish plotting to assert a kind of “authenticity.” But its efforts to frame its subjects are weak, finally unconvincing. You know, so punk rock.
Wassup Rockers – Theatrical Trailer