Wassup Rockers (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Wassup Rockers could easily be seen as an attempt by maverick director Larry Clark to approach the mainstream. With Kids, Clark began his directorial career mired in scandal. (The Weinsteins had to spin off Excalibur Films because Miramax was prohibited by Disney from releasing an NC-17 production.) The film was raw, but it worked. His middling follow-up, Another Day in Paradise, was succeeded by Bully, a powerful cinematic gut-punch. Next came the colossal misfire of Ken Park, one of the recent group of movies to tread the line between hardcore sex and art. With Wassup Rockers, Clark pulls back from the edge. The movie employs his usual cinema verite style (complete with an introductory "interview" with one of the principals), and the amateur actors are playing fictional analogs of themselves, but Wassup Rockers has entered a controversy-free zone. The sex - and there isn't much - is tame and off-screen. The R-rating is a product of kids talking the way one would expect kids to talk when they hail from South Central L.A. The problem with the film is that caricatures replace characters and Clark's "tell it like it is" approach is undermined by his moralizing and ill-placed satire.

I was a booster of Kids and Bully. Wassup Rockers is not in the same category. As with most Clark movies, the plot is minimal: a group of seven Latino South Central skateboarders take a road trip to Beverly Hills to practice their hobby. While there, they encounter a couple of horny white girls who invite them to drop by, a racist cop, a gay pedophile throwing a house party, a trigger-happy film director, and a freaky woman looking for a toy boy. At times, it seems like Larry Clark is trying to emulate David Lynch. All the supporting characters in the film are of the weird variety one often finds lurking just out of the spotlight in Lynch films. Clark, however, doesn't handle these people with Lynch's skill, and he's less adept at filling in the details of his protagonists. Most of them have a defining characteristic or two but they're interchangeable and uninteresting.

Clark wants us to believe his films take place in the real world. That's why he casts newcomers to play versions of themselves and directs his cameraman to stay low-key. Ironically, Wassup Rockers plays like a twisted, modern-day version of The Wizard of Oz crossed with Martin Scorsese's After Hours. The idea is probably to show how surreal the surrounding of Beverly Hills is to these underprivileged kids, but Clark mishandles the tone. It appears we are being presented with an objective view of the circumstances, rather than a subjective one, and this undermines the film. Wassup Rockers comes across as contrived and silly, with the coup de grace being an idiotic scene featuring a bathtub electrocution.

The message is loud and clear. People shouldn't be judged by their appearance and mannerisms. Just because they're from South Central, look like gang members, and commit crimes doesn't mean they're bad individuals. White people, on the other hand, are uniformly evil and fall into one (or more) of these categories: oversexed, obnoxious, afflicted with pedophilia, creepy, paranoid, racist, or vain. I can see the validity of trying to debunk the urban Latino stereotype, but doing it by transforming everyone outside of that group into a vile caricature is a crude and ineffective approach.

The acting in Wassup Rockers is atrocious across-the-board. Then again, what did Clark expect after going into South Central and picking up seven kids off the streets? Reality of this sort is a double-edged sword. You have actors with the life-experience to play the characters, but without the skill to convey what their on-screen personas are going through. The movie works best during its small scenes - conversations between the boys (many of which were improvised), domestic sequences, and skateboard practicing. It's when Clark ventures onto the wider portion of the canvas that he runs into trouble. Also, I found the pervasive, discordant punk music to be distracting. In small doses, it would have helped establish the setting, but its non-stop presence becomes grating.

Wassup Rockers will give Larry Clark a non-controversial title on his resume. I doubt, however, that it will perform better than his earlier films. Wassup Rockers is amateurish, but without the redeeming qualities found in Kids and Bully.

Wassup Rockers (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2006-06-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1