There are moments in Larry Clark’s “Wassup Rockers” that may make you a little squeamish–the ones in the stream-of-consciousness account of a day in the life (and sometimes death) of a happy-go-lucky gang of Latin American teens from South Central L.A., who travel to Beverly Hills to skate-board on the steps of a park and then have to flee back home, when the director’s camera pans almost lustfully over the boys’ young bodies (as do the eyes of some of the characters they meet). But this time around such uncomfortable episodes are relatively infrequent, at least in comparison to Clark’s earlier pictures, “Kids” and “Bully,” which were much more ostentatious in that regard.
The tone is very different this time around, too: there are explosions of bigotry and violence that leave some of their number jailed or worse, but they’re staged with a sardonically humorous edge, and “Rockers” is basically good-natured, even goofy, much like its band of homeboys. Of course, it has a sociological point to make, too, though it does so in a weirdly comic way that makes the message much more palatable than Clark’s previous “serious” statements. Because as it ironically turns out, these foreign-looking youngsters, whom the cops and most of the locals they meet in the upscale district look on as dangerous interlopers, are just a bunch of naive, harmless Candides seeking nothing more than a challenging space to test their skating skills, and they’re the ones who are actually endangered by the powerful, predatory members of “high society” they’re thrown into contact with. (Even back in their own neighborhood, they’re bullied and threatened by the black kids who ridicule their rejection of hip-hop style in favor of tight clothes and long hair–an almost defiantly anti-PC take on life in the ghetto, especially since we’re told one of their number has recently been shot to death in a drive-by.) What “Wassup Rockers” eventually morphs into is an oddball reversal on “The Warriors,” in which the essentially sweet-natured gang have to make their way back home through a battlefield not of rival gangs but of lustful young girls, their arrogant boyfriends and brothers, sex-crazed socialites, rich pedophiles, vigilante mansion-owners with guns at the ready and–of course–the racist police. Thankfully there’s a kind of underground railway of maids and gardeners to help them along.
Among the kids, all played by non-professionals, the most notable is easygoing, rangy Jonathan (Jonathan Velasquez). He introduces the picture in a pseudo-interview as he sits bare-chested on his unkempt bed, describing his pals and recollecting some of the incidents we’ll later see in full before the story per se begins. Jonathan, who plays in a band as well as skating, might seem, from a purely objective perspective, an irritatingly smug kid–sexually irresistible (it appears), more than a little cocky, and pretty much oblivious to the turmoil around him and the longings he stirs in others. But Velasquez comes across as so open and unaffected that he’s more engaging than annoying. None of his pals makes as strong as impression, though the blissfully unaware Kico (Francisco Pedrassa), who repeatedly responds to the question of where he’s from by simply saying “from the ghetto,” adds some gently humorous moments. As with Clark’s previous pictures, this one is pretty ragged technically, but the ersatz cinema verite look is quite intentional and effective. Harry Cody’s insistent music is also a plus.
There’s nothing profound in “Wassup Rockers,” but its relatively light touch is a pleasure after Larry Clark’s heavier efforts. It may not dig very deep, but it has a certain grubby charm, and it doesn’t overplay its hand.