Hollywood has long stereotyped Latino teens as violent, gangbanging thugs steeped in drugs and misogyny. Larry Clark’s “Wassup Rockers” is a welcome and different portrayal of Latino teenagers in America. Jonathan (Jonathan Velazquez), Kiko (Francisco Pedrasa), and Milton a.k.a. Spermball (Milton Velzaquez) are poor kids living in the Hispanic ghetto of South Central Los Angeles. These kids are not like their peers. They listen to punk rock, wear tight clothes, and spend their days looking for the best spots to go skateboarding. They abhor violence and go out of their way to avoid it. These kids are atypical. But they are cool, and all the girls know it. And they’re not actors. Clark discovered them while doing a photo shoot at an LA park.
The film begins as a documentary. We’re first introduced to Jonathan, who’s basically the leader of the group and a true gigolo. We meet the other kids and get a glimpse into their lives. They’re constantly harassed for their looks and musical preference. Every day is spent avoiding fights. They’re dirt poor, but have tremendous family bonds. The story takes a fictional turn when the teens go to Beverly Hills to skate a famous set of stairs. They end up hitting on a pair of rich suburban girls and arouse the ire of a hideously racist cop. On the run, they embark on a twisted Homeric journey home. Filled with tragedy and the spectacle of an unfamiliar world.
Larry Clark likes to shock his audience. “Wassup Rockers” is easily his tamest film so far. There are some disturbing scenes, but nothing compared to his earlier work. This film is primarily a character study of these teens. He wants to immerse you in their lives; then show you how difficult and dangerous it is to truly be different. He accomplishes this goal by skillfully incorporating the vastness of Los Angeles. Without a car, stuck in a strange place, it really is a feat getting back home for them. We appreciate the difficulty of their circumstance.
The problem with the film is that it really goes overboard in the third act. Clark gets a bit heavy-handed and takes the film to far out of reality. I think that’s a mistake because there was a lot of realism to the story. It takes on a “Warriors” ethos where the entire world is against them. It’s too much and doesn’t work at all, especially where the violence is concerned. Clark should have stuck to the voyage home and avoided the theatrics.
I am continually fascinated and bothered by Larry Clark’s films. While his characterizations are true, and deeply reflective of modern times, he really sees no innocence or restraint in youth today. Rampant sexuality and violence are pervasive, but the constant focus on these themes is getting played out. “Wassup Rockers” is an interesting movie and solidly entertaining, but I hope he can move in a different direction and show some range in his themes.