ONE OF THE MAIN characters in SLC Punk! dies from an accidental overdose, but he's really a victim of metaphor, a symbol of lost idealism. This is not to say that writer-director James Merendino looks back on his youth with eyes clouded by nostalgia. The characters in his semi-autobiographical film have a lot of fun, but they also do a lot of stupid things.
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These shenanigans are narrated by recent college grad Stevo (Matthew Lillard of Scream fame), who maintains a rigid value system: You're either an anarchist like him, or you're part of the problem. Being a cobalt-haired punk rocker in Reagan-era Salt Lake City, Stevo is a connoisseur of alienation. His boomer dad wants him to follow in his footsteps and attend Harvard Law School; Stevo prefers philosophizing, fighting, and drinking Mickeys. SLC Punk! follows his meandering lead. The story stops and starts as Stevo introduces his friends and delivers hyperactive monologues/lectures directly into the camera. He sidetracks into circular reasoning about why anarchism and violence don't mix, an examination of the local "tribes" (punks, new-wavers, rednecks, et al.), and a recounting of a vividly overwrought acid trip.
Each of these digressions removes another layer of Stevo's bravado. It turns out that fitting in is important, even to someone who considers his outsider status a badge of honor; just like the rednecks he reviles, Stevo belongs to a group—albeit a misunderstood and ostracized one.
It takes a year—an hour and a half in movie time—for Stevo's feelings of alienation to spill over to his own scene, his best friend, Bob (the low-key Michael Goorjian), and, ultimately, himself. Then Stevo reaches his big epiphany: He can't singlehandedly change the world, at least not by slouching around his hometown ranting about posers and drawing swastikas on Reagan posters. Once he acknowledges the futility of fighting from the sidelines, he has to leave behind his comfortable, circumscribed existence for the big, bad, ambiguous world. In a wonderful scene near the end of the film, Stevo recalls his initial reasons for becoming a punk, and it becomes clear that his posers don't really exist—or rather that they're everywhere, because everyone's playing a role. If they're smart, though, they can decide which role to play.
SLC Punk! occasionally loses steam; there are a few too many panoramic shots of downtown Salt Lake accompanied by Stevo's voice-over laments. But the actors (especially Lillard), who look believable as punks in the sticks, compel you to keep watching. From his hyperkinetic fidgeting to his breakneck narration, Stevo is the embodiment of the articulate young rebel. It's indicative of just how much Lillard makes him real—and how well costume designer Fiora captures the outr頳tyle of the '80s—that when he turns up in a suit and tie in the final scene, it's as dramatic as Cinderella arriving at the ball.
By the time we reach this bittersweet denouement, Stevo and Merendino have ingratiated themselves enough that bits of self-conscious dialogue and narrative clich鳠dissolve in a haze of good feeling. SLC Punk! is that oddest of creations, a teen film made for adults—the ones who will fully appreciate Merendino's elegy for the cut-and-dried principles of youth.