Rudolph Valentino was, of course, Hollywood’s original embodiment of the Latin lover. But the Italian-born taxi dancer is best known for playing the title role in 1921’s The Sheik, a stereotype-laden fantasy of what later became known as Orientalism. The occasional Jack Black role aside, these days the movies handle ethnic identity more scrupulously. So it’s a given that this week’s pair of Latin-lover flicks feature Latinos playing Latinos, as well as authentic locations, moral ambiguity, and lots of sweat and other fluids. But none of that guarantees that Wassup Rockers or Lower City will ring true. After all, one of them was written and directed by Larry Clark.
Most moviegoers know the photographer-turned-filmmaker as the man behind Kids, the docupotboiler that imagined a generation of early-teen druggies, rapists, and HIV disseminators. The movie was officially Viewed With Alarm back in 1995, but it’s lost much of its prophetic power—mostly by proving to be not all that prophetic. The director went on to make Another Day in Paradise, Bully, and the little-seen Ken Park, all of which also depicted contemporary adolescents as seriously messed up. So it’s a modest relief to meet the guys Clark assembled for Wassup Rockers, a tale of seven Latino skatepunks who recklessly venture out of their South Los Angeles neighborhood. These high-school-age kids don’t spend their day in paradise, yet they are a pack of dirty-faced angels.
The movie begins in one of Clark’s trademark locations: the bedroom of a shirtless teenage boy. While Jonathan (Jonathan Velasquez) discusses masturbation, his friends, and a suicide attempt, the director struggles to see enough of him, finally splitting the screen so he can observe the kid from two different angles. Creepily voyeuristic as it is, it’s the film’s most persuasive moment. After this, Jonathan and his friends—all apparently using their real names or nicknames and all apparently actual friends—become pawns in a scenario that gets progressively more contrived.
Because Jonathan, Kico (Francisco Pedrasa), Spermball (Milton Velasquez), and the rest are members of a screamo band that goes on the road—all the way to Beverly Hills—more than one critic has compared Wassup Rockers to A Hard Day’s Night. Like the Beatles, the rockers are young, beautiful, and cheeky. But both they and the movie lack the semifictionalized Fab Four’s wit, and when Clark shifts from barrio naturalism to Hollywood satire, things become dire indeed.
On an odyssey to Beverly Hills High School, site of a stairway fabled among skaters, the kids are hassled by cops and beguiled by two teenage sirens, who invite them home, offer them Glacéau, and inspect their uncircumcised penises. (“Looks dangerous,” one of the preppy sex bombs says with Clarkian enthusiasm.) Like the sexual explorations that occurred before the guys left their own turf, these are curtailed—this time by some white kids who arrive to attack the interlopers. The Latinos take off through the Hills, crashing a party at the home of a gay photographer who peeks through the keyhole when Jonathan uses the bathroom. This is followed by encounters with an aging actor who talks like Clint Eastwood and shoots like Charlton Heston and a drunken socialite who lures the now-battered Kico into her bathtub. Clearly, the upper-class world is kinkier and more dangerous than the boys’ home territory, which Kico simply calls “the ghetto.”
To a certain extent, Clark knows what he’s doing. Jonathan and Kico are featured not only because they’re the prettiest but also because they’re the least wooden as performers. And the notion of a band of well-meaning, tight-jeaned skatepunks trying to hold its own against baggy-pantsed, hip-hopped classmates—they’re the ones who derisively yell, “Wassup, rockers?”—is an intriguing, ready-made metaphor for the rapid metamorphosis of American youth culture. Too bad the director had to add a story (credited to him and Matthew Frost) that replaces fresh observation with Old Hollywood tropes and is soon lost in hackneyed social commentary. By not demonizing its protagonists, Wassup Rockers makes partial amends for Kids. But Clark still doesn’t trust his charismatic young discoveries to tell their own stories, which have to be better than the trashy fables he constructs for them.
On the other side of the equator, Lower City’s protagonist announces that she’s going on a journey, too—to Salvador, in northeastern Brazil. To do so, Karinna makes a deal with lifelong buddies Naldinho and Deco: She’ll screw them both in exchange for a ride on their dilapidated little cargo boat. In addition to condensing the movie’s plot to its essentials, this deal encapsulates Salvador-born director and co-writer Sérgio Machado’s worldview. In his sticky and always-broke homeland, everything is for sale—and for those who can’t scrounge the cash to buy, there’s always armed robbery.
A stripper as well as a whore, Karinna (Alice Braga, niece of Brazilian screen siren Sônia Braga) has no lack of clients when the three reach their destination. Yet she keeps hooking up with Naldinho (Wagner Moura) and Deco (Lázaro Ramos), sometimes even for free. Perhaps it’s those gratis couplings that convince Naldinho that he’s in love with Karinna, a development that imperils his relationship with Deco. When she was just a prostitute, Karinna couldn’t tear the black and white “brothers” apart. But once she becomes a part-time girlfriend—and, inevitably, a pregnant one—she becomes something to fight over. And fighting is another thing Naldinho and Deco find just about irresistible.
Admittedly, Karinna does once bestow something other than sexual favors on Naldinho. Partway through their trip to Salvador, the three stop at one of the film’s myriad dives, where Naldinho gets overly aroused by a cockfight whose bloodiness is shoved directly (and protractedly) into the foreground. The smug owner of the winning rooster takes Naldinho’s money and then directs some racial taunts at Deco. Naldinho sticks up for his Afro-Brazilian friend, getting stabbed for his trouble. Karinna, who was about to abandon the guys to take a faster ride, stays behind to nurse Naldinho, a development that seems entirely out of character.
Not that Karinna has much of a character. If Deco and Naldinho consist of little more than male bonding, explosive tempers, and pressing debts, Karinna is all strut and tease. Her lascivious set pieces—one during which she dances near-naked into a bar’s audience and shares a long kiss with a woman is typical—are designed more to titillate the viewer than to make psychological or dramatic points. Karim Ainouz’s script features plenty of violence, too, including that knife fight, several incidents involving guns, and punches thrown both in and out of boxing rings. None of it leads to a tragic crescendo, however. Instead, Naldinho and Deco slug their way to a sort of acceptance, which after all their scuffling comes as a curious anticlimax.
Like many recent Brazilian films—including City of God, in which Braga appeared, and Carandiru, which starred both Moura and Ramos—Lower City luxuriates in humidity and shanty-town atmosphere. Toca Seabra’s graceful handheld camera snakes through clubs that are just big enough for a brawl and slips into alleys that are ideal for stand-up sex. Carlinhos Brown and Beto Villares’ gently eclectic score adds another source of locomotion without ever becoming intrusive. So credit Machado (longtime assistant director to Central Station’s Walter Salles) and his collaborators with giving Lower City a look, a place, and a sound, each of them distinctive. All his film lacks is a story that’s even half as compelling as the rest of it.CP