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Pretty Punk 

How the hood rats in Wassup Rockers learned to skate, rock, turn their world upside down . . . and give Larry Clark the biggest wedgie of his life

Wednesday, Jun 21 2006

Jealous cowards try to control. Rise above. We’re gonna rise above. They distort what we say. Rise above. We’re gonna rise above. Try and stop what we do. Rise above.

—“Rise Above,” Black Flag

Any self-respecting skater kid wants to hit the famously awesome steps at Beverly Hills High, at least once, just to say he did.

click to flip through (10) Straight out of South Central casting: Kico (Photos by Larry Clark)
  • Straight out of South Central casting: Kico (Photos by Larry Clark)

“There’s always skaters there,” says director Larry Clark. “There’s always white skaters, all these Beverly Hills skaters; people bring their families and their little kids, and they have picnics on the lawn.”

Fine for them, but when the heroes of Wassup Rockers, Clark’s latest film, about a bunch of South-Central Latino kids who are into punk rock, tight clothes and gnarly street skating, arrived there early one morning and started skating when nobody was around, the notoriously separatist Beverly Hills cops came and busted them. They were made to sit on the sidewalk and endure a lot of racist crap about how they don’t belong there.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re gonna make a film here,’?” recalls Clark. “?‘We’re all permitted, and I’m just showing ’em the location, they’ve never been here before.’ And the cop says, ‘I’ve been warning you for three months.’ And he gave ’em all tickets.”

Of course, the cops hadn’t warned these guys specifically, but they damn sure looked like the sort they’d warn . . .

“[The cop] says, ‘What else are you guys doing in Beverly Hills?’ He calls in, ‘I’ve got seven Hispanics here . . .’ and they make them stay there, they gave ’em all $180 tickets,” Clark continues. “They had to go to [court in] Santa Monica at 8 in the morning — and they live in South-Central. I said, ‘They’ve gotta go to school, how are they gonna get to Santa Monica?’

“I showed him my DGA card, you know, ‘I’m a director, this is what we’re doing.’ He didn’t want to hear it. He kept saying, ‘I’ve been warning them for three months.’ So I said, ‘How many tickets have you given out in three months?’ He says, ‘You’re the first.’ The guy looked just like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2.”

That experience became a scene in the movie, and it couldn’t have been contrived with nearly as much authenticity if it hadn’t happened in real life.

Wassup Rockers is a “quintessential” L.A. story, as they say, and possibly of more interest now with the success of Crash, which deals with some of these issues in much cornier and less true ways.

Our stars in Wassup are a brotherhood of Salvadoran and Guatemalan kids ranging in age from 13 to 17, none of whom are interested in taking drugs or drinking alcohol and all of whom are crazy about those two traditionally “white”-style pursuits, skateboarding and punk rock. Generally disparaged as “Mexicans” by the black homies who populate their neighborhood in equal numbers, the skate kids heroically resist falling into the gang trap, and suffer a lotta verbal abuse for their mode of dress, which is tight, tight jeans, dirty sneakers, rock-themed ?T-shirts and long, head-banger hair. Marked as weirdos within their larger hip-hop/gang-style neighborhood world, they’re getting beef not only from the black kids but from the other Latino kids — which they simply laugh off, for the most part, or thrash off with their punk band and brazenly skate across town, letting the slings and arrows fall where they may.

And in the scene they based on getting busted, Jonathan, Kico and Milton (a.k.a. Spermball) are really messing with the cop, which looks like a lot of fun.

“Jonathan and Kico would tell me, ‘Anytime we get busted that Milton’s with us, we know we have to run, because Spermball’s thing is fucking with cops and running,’ ” says Clark.

In the film, when the cop busts them, Milton, who is the biggest of the bunch at just 12 years old, snatches up his skateboard and runs to the other side of the police car and grabs the cop’s sandwich, and says, “Give me my skateboard or I’m gonna eat your lunch.” The cop runs around, and the kids all grab their boards and take off.

The boys are just being themselves in this film, which makes for sufficiently great acting and captures their true spirit and energy. While skating at the school, they indulge in an activity that young skaters of all races, creeds, colors and religions can relate to, which is to attempt foolhardy jumps off a steep-stepped ramp, only to suffer the usual gruesome wipeouts. Meanwhile, two white girls are checking them out with brassy lust, and invite them to their opulent home in Beverly Hills, where the boys hang for a while — and don’t steal or spray-paint the place. Instead, the film’s stars, Jonathan Valasquez and Kico Pedrasa, get “close” with the girls, one pair acting swiftly and passionately, the other engaging in very sweet small talk about the differences in their worlds. Their talk, like much of the dialogue in the film, is unscripted.

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