This is going to be the film, more than any other, that truly allows for a discussion of trash vs art. This film is graphic, full of dialogue that would have David Mamet blush and production values that would cause Roger Corman to insist the film looks cheap. It ignited a firestorm of controversy, mostly becaushttp://thecornercritc.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1322&action=edite it was given an NC-17 rating and Disney wanted nothing to do with the film. It is brutal, it is uncomfortable, it is unflinching.
It is also a sort of masterpiece of independent film; not since the days of cinema verite has such a thing as this existed. It is just an exceedingly difficult film to watch; and that is my ultimate problem with the film. I admire what it does, I admire its execution, I admire its script, I admire everything about it. But I am not sure if I can honestly recommend it – it was far too hard to sit through.
In many ways, the film has no plot. It is about foul-mouthed kids living in New York who steal, take drugs, curse, have sex, and basically are the role models to the sort of behavior elementary school guidance counselors warn everyone about. More directly, the film focuses to a certain degree on Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), who wants to sleep with as many young virgins as possible. One of his former flings, Jenny (Chloe Sevigny – this was her first film role) discovers she is HIV positive and tries to inform Telly. He wants nothing to do with it, so she goes about trying to warn the next girl he intends to deflower.This is also told through a sort of montage of the kids’ daily lives.
Many of the critics (according to Korine) criticize the film because they were expecting there to be a moral compass, some sort of authority figure to put an end to the madness and destructive behavior the kids exhibited. I did not. In fact, having any such moral compass that the audience could see would have turned the film into a Disney parable rather than the unflinching portrayal of urban life it is. This is entering Lord of the Flies territory – the kids act according to their whims, in what they view is necessary not for survival, but for acceptance by their peers. Audiences do know what some of the consequences will be; we see them when we read Time about how cities are destroying human nature or see a news broadcast about homelessness. Most of these kids will either join gangs, beg, or die. Seeing the beginnings of that long cycle is certainly effective in a call for urban renewal.
But that does not make easy viewing, and not just because the film is depressing. The film’s aesthetic is very clumsy and amateurish. While the documentaries of the past that the film is trying to emulate used their do it yourself approach to make the film seem more like reality. Here, for whatever reason, it actually does the opposite. At times I felt like I was watching a documentary and was completely immersed into the world. Other times, I felt like I was watching a 1970s geek show and a man was about to bite the head off a chicken while talking about education reform. Sure, he may make a few valid points. But we immediately forget them and instead focus on his disgusting acts.
And that is my main problem with the film. It pushes boundaries, sure. But at times it becomes lost in its own purpose, forgetting that it has a message to convey. Maybe the film would have worked if the kids were shown having sex. But when it becomes the entire point of their existence (to the degree where Telly states that “if you take away (the act of sex) then I would have nothing) it becomes more like an exploitation film. It was wise to cast real life New York kids in the roles (and launched more careers than you would think), but it does have the disadvantage of having quite a few bad performances (the kid playing Telly was actually quite an unconvincing actor). It’s great choices are balanced by bad ones to the point where I am not sure how to review the film properly.
There was a lot to like about the film, but also a lot to gripe about. It is right on the threshold of being a great film. and I do feel the need to defend it given how it was almost not released at all. But then, strip away the pretentious indie film hype and you have an adequate film that was clearly the first effort of everyone involved. So, do I really like the film? I honestly have not made up my mind. Maybe I really need to introduce star ratings into my reviews. It would certainly help me determine whether or not I like the film.