If Crash grew a pair of cojones, it might look something like Larry Clark’s cheerfully defiant Wassup Rockers, in which a pack of Latino skaters from South Los Angeles spend an afternoon marooned in the suburban jungle of Beverly Hills, cutting a swath through dense thickets of white privilege and trying to make it out in one piece. The kids are real — teens of varying Central American extractions cast to play variations on themselves in a fictionalized storyline conceived by Clark and co-writer Matthew Frost. The movie itself is Clark’s gentlest and most optimistic in a career notable for its candid exploration, through still and moving images, of adolescent sexuality, violence and substance abuse. But Clark hasn’t exactly gone soft: Never before has he shown us anything quite as transgressive as these brown-skinned rebels sticking it to The Man with the devil-may-care abandon of a frontside 360 ollie executed sans pads or helmet.
Shot on high-definition video, but with a ragged on-the-fly aesthetic that suggests the greatest skate video never made, Wassup Rockers is Clark’s third portrait of anomic teenage skate culture, following Kids (1995) and the excellent, still-unreleased-in-America Ken Park (2002). And, like those films, this one has the loosely stitched quality of a pair of low-riding jeans, with just enough of a story to hold together its fragmentary episodes. The film opens with a striking four-minute monologue, shot by Clark during the casting process, in which then 14-year-old nonprofessional actor Jonathan Velasquez introduces us to himself and recounts some of the pubescent sexual escapades that are then re-enacted by Velasquez and his real-life friends and family. (Other key characters include Velasquez’s brothers Eddie and Milton, the latter of whom has earned the unfortunate nickname of “Spermball.”) Decked out in punk T-shirts and too-tight jeans, the boys are outcasts even on their home turf, with its resident gangstas and wannabes. But when they take to the streets, darting into frame on their worn-out boards until they are seven abreast, they’re like a band of old-West roughriders galloping across the horizon.
Except, the skaters of Wassup Rockers are emphatically not gangbangers or even troublemakers. About the worst thing they can be accused of is the occasional act of trespassing, as when they embark on their fateful afterschool pilgrimage to skate the famous “nine stairs” on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. In telling their stories, Clark doesn’t set out to sanctify or patronize: The movie is neither one of those white man’s guilt trips about the nobility of the poor nor one of those 1990s-style urban horror tales responsible for persuading millions never to stray south of the 10 freeway. Rather, it’s the story of some basically good kids from broken, poverty-line homes who march to the beat of their own drum and who just want to skate — and survive — the mean streets of what they proudly call “the ghetto.”
Like his obvious model, John Cassavetes (Clark’s production company was once called Chinese Bookie Pictures), Clark strives to capture on film a pungent emotional reality that has little if anything to do with the carefully ordered surfaces, assembly-line conflicts and freeze-dried resolutions of most Hollywood cinema. (Case in point: Compare Wassup Rockers against last year’s Lords of Dogtown, which managed to transform a compelling true-life rebel-skater tale into reductive triumph-over-adversity tripe.) Then, once we arrive in Beverly Hills, Wassup Rockers turns into, of all things, a brash and broadly played satire. While skating the BHH stairs, the boys catch sight of a pair of blond and flirtatious WASP princesses (loosely modeled on the Hilton sisters), and after making a fast getaway from a racially profiling cop, they follow these white bunnies into a decadent wonderland of nouveau riche swimming pools and senile over-the-hill movie stars. Taking an acknowledged page from John Cheever’s classic short story “The Swimmer” — and an unacknowledged one from John Waters — Clark has Velasquez and company literally skating (when, that is, they’re not running for their lives) from back yard to back yard, crossing paths with everyone from a lecherous beefcake photographer to a soused middle-aged matron to Charlton Heston. Well, not Heston exactly, but a dead ringer (played by actor David Livingston) who regards the appearance of an unidentified Latino on his carefully manicured lawn as though he were human buckshot.
That’s the one encounter I wish Clark had rethought, not because Heston should be exempt from satire, but because Michael Moore has already been to this well, and even back then, it seemed like an opportunistic ambush. It’s also the most obvious thing in Wassup Rockers, so much else of which is honestly insightful into the racial and economic lines that stratify L.A. as distinctly as any geographic boundaries. Clark even shows a certain sympathy for his Hilton surrogates, whose moneyed entitlement doesn’t quite seem to have bought them happiness. In a sweaty, sweetly naive scene that’s all close-ups of eyes and lips and thighs, one of the girls sits in her bedroom alone with Kico (Francisco Pedrasa) — the crew’s resident emo Lothario — and they explore their similarities and differences almost like two alien species trying to figure out if they might be compatible. We’re a million miles away here from one of those self-pitying tragi-romances about the good boy/girl who falls for the bad boy/girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Larry Clark couldn’t give fuck all about trying to save the world, or teaching us all to sing in harmony. His point, for a blissful moment, is that you can be young and bored and horny no matter the color of your skin or how much money you have. And then the moment passes, and the girls’ hothead preppy boyfriends show up to give the inevitable chase.
WASSUP ROCKERS | Written and directed by LARRY CLARK, from a story by CLARK and MATTHEW FROST | Produced by CLARK, KEVIN TUREN and HENRY WINTERSTERN | Released by First Look Pictures | At the Nuart