Wassup Rockers

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Larry Clark

Action, a short-lived Fox sitcom that satirized the movie business, once opened with an elderly director sitting in a producer’s office dressed as a skate punk while his agent tries to pass him off as a hot young talent. The gag sprang to mind when I was thinking about Larry Clark, the poet laureate of fucked-up teens, who was born in 1943. He was a highly respected photographer when he made his directing debut in 1995 with the notorious indie drama Kids, which chronicled the sex life of a callow 17-year-old skateboarder in New York City. To some extent, each of Clark’s subsequent features–Another Day in Paradise (1998), Bully (2001), and Ken Park (2002)–has delved into the secret world of teenagers, leaving writers (Tom Wolfe in I Am Charlotte Simmons) and other filmmakers (Catherine Hardwicke in Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown) huffing and puffing to catch up with him.

Wassup Rockers, Clark’s latest exercise in teen anthropology, follows the misadventures of seven Latino skaters as they make their way from South Central to Beverly Hills and back again. It’s the least impressive of the Clark features I’ve seen (not including Ken Park, which has never been released in the U.S.), but its flaws are illuminating. Clark first made a name for himself with the photo book Tulsa (1971), whose moody portraits of thieves and junkies influenced Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish. When Clark made the transition to movies he brought to the big screen that same realism and eye for character-defining detail, but the documentary element in his work has always mixed uneasily with the dramatic demands of commercial filmmaking. In Wassup Rockers the conflict is especially pronounced: the first half is a striking piece of photojournalism with little dramatic interest, and the second half is a highly contrived narrative that forfeits any claim to realism.

The inconsistency seems to be mostly the result of Clark’s approach to casting. For Kids he was able to round up impressive amateurs, three of whom–Chloe Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, and Leo Fitzpatrick–went on to become successful professionals. Clark used professional actors for Another Day in Paradise and Bully, then mixed professional adults with amateur kids for Ken Park; he says the kids were so raw and unpredictable the adults were forced to keep it real. For Wassup Rockers Clark cast seven teenage boys he met on the street while doing a magazine photo shoot, and the script draws on their real-life experiences. I wouldn’t count on any of them becoming the next Rosario Dawson; they’re uniformly awful, delivering their lines in a self-conscious monotone and occasionally stumbling over them or glancing at the camera. Even playing themselves, they’re unable to create on-screen characters, which has the effect of making them seem interchangeable.

The stilted performances are especially unfortunate when one considers what a fine documentary Clark might have gotten out of the same material. He captures the kids’ daily lives in intimate detail as they roll out of bed, lift weights, ride skateboards to school, flirt with girls, and rehearse their punk band in the basement. Offering a textured sense of a world we might never see otherwise has always been Clark’s gift, and the movie’s first half is so rich with candid, authentic moments he could easily select a few dozen frames as still photographs and publish them in book form. But when the kids open their mouths reality evaporates, leaving behind a rickety high school play.

Wassup Rockers abruptly switches gears when the seven friends pile into a rusty Dodge and set off for Beverly Hills to do some skating. Pulled over by a couple of bicycle cops, they confess that no one has a driver’s license and surrender their vehicle, though that doesn’t stop them from catching a couple city buses and enjoying an afternoon of skating at Beverly Hills High School. A pair of rich girls invite them over for sex, and after that encounter ends in chaos the rockers scurry from one palatial backyard to the next, trying to make their way home. At this point the movie turns picaresque, as the kids run amok and Clark pokes cheap fun at spoiled Hollywood types, most of whom regard the kids as exotic animals or earthy sex objects.

According to Clark, this part of the movie was inspired by two cult classics: Walter Hill’s surreal street-gang saga The Warriors (1979), whose title hoods navigate the turf of various rival gangs as they try to make their way home to Coney Island, and Frank Perry’s equally strange The Swimmer (1968), about a suburban New York man who resolves to swim all the backyard pools that lead back to his house. Those models might account for the episodic narrative, but the satire and slapstick (one socialite tumbles down a flight of stairs, another is electrocuted in her bathtub) are weirdly reminiscent of A Hard Day’s Night, another movie that starred amateur actors in a script drawn from their own experiences. Whatever its antecedent, the second part of Wassup Rockers takes place not just in Beverly Hills but in movieland.

When: Multiple Screenings

Where: Landmark’s Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark

Price: $7-$9.50

Info: 773-509-4949

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/First Look Pictures and Larry Clark.