Wassup Rockers

Opens at Crest, Fri., July 21. Rated R. 105 minutes.

Larry Clark is the kind of artist who can have exactly the right idea and exactly the wrong idea in his head at the same time. As a photographer, friend, and patron of young Hispanic skateboard punks in Los Angeles, the hard-living, aging hipster (Kids) has identified a wonderful little subculture that he fondles, at least, with his eyeballs. Which is fine in a photo essay, skateboard video, coffee-table book (like his Tulsa), or Bruce Weber documentary. We'd be happy to watch these seven boys, aged about 14 to 16, simply being themselves while getting ready for school, collectively skating to class (the movie's best scene), flirting on the playground, endlessly attempting jumps down concrete stairs, and rehearsing some of their music. Clark has a good eye for this stuff. But to make them enact the story of a West L.A. Odyssey, The Warriors lost in Bel-Air? Here's where Clark sticks his pen in his eye.

Led by the puppy-handsome Jonathan Velasquez, all living on the same block, the kids are linked by skating, music, and some family ties. But they're outsiders in their South Central neighborhood, a bullied minority, mocked by black kids for wearing their jeans tight and emulating the Ramones rather than Snoop Dogg. Instead of joining gangs or getting into trouble, they only want to practice skateboard tricks, play their music, and maybe drink a little beer. They're a gentle tribe, not too cool to horse around in a children's playground, rather innocent beneath their downy moustaches. Sex is treated modestly, not boastfully, and Rockers isn't nearly so explicit as Kids or Ken Park (never released in the U.S. and only available on import DVDs). The neighborhood slut is disdained, and when Jonathan finally strips down with a Beverly Hills girl in her gilded bedroom, Clark doesn't let the scene play too far. His camera lingers on the sunlit blond hair on the small of her back, while Jonathan's nudity is turned away from our gaze. ("Looks dangerous," she says of his uncircumcised anatomy.)

In its quiet moments—kids just hanging out and getting to know one another—Rockers is undeniably sweet, but also undeniably lecherous: You sense Clark leering from off camera. The whole film feels like he's got another magazine folded inside this copy of Tiger Beat. And it falls to pieces during the boys' final backyard Brentwood odyssey through a gallery of hateful Hollywood caricatures. Everyone's a poseur, inauthentic, and—worst of all—grown-up compared to these pure punk fauns. As they vault over walls from one gathering of phonies to the next (yes, like Cheever's "The Swimmer"), you realize Clark hasn't just been duped by their exaggerated urban folklore, their avidly embellished life stories. His bitterness gets the better of him: He really wants to believe the West Side is inhabited by gorgons and medusas and harpies. (Like Another Day in Paradise was their fault, not his.) These ghouls are cast to resemble various showbiz types including, in the picture's cheapest shot, Dirty Harry himself. Which makes me wonder what Clint Eastwood has ever done to Larry Clark. Aside from making better movies, of course.

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