There's nothing wrong with artless realism in cinema, but by about the 10th time that director Larry Clark shows one of the Salvadoran skate-punks in his film Wassup Rockers unspectacularly wiping out, viewers may long for a glitzed-up montage sequence. In Clark's earlier films, Kids, Bully, and Ken Park, he's shown a knack for staggering the ridiculously lurid with the grimly accurate, and in his series of "suburban confidential" photography exhibits, he's shown a gift for romanticizing mundanity. But no matter how well Clark frames and shoots Wassup Rockers' narrative journey from the barrio to Beverly Hills—as his underclass skaters search in vain for a clean place to roll—the early emphasis on inaction grows numbing. It may be truer to the lives of his amateur cast to watch them engage in mumbly, inarticulate conversations between rounds of failed skate tricks, but it isn't especially cinematic.
On the other hand, Wassup Rockers' formless scenes of teenagers hanging out—in a part of Los Angeles rarely seen on a movie screen—are preferable to what happens once the skaters arrive in Beverly Hills, and a pair of worldly Anglo girls invite the gang back to their mansion to fool around. In a direct homage to the John Cheever short story "The Swimmer," Clark has the kids flee from one upper-class backyard to the next, encountering idle wealthy folk. In theory, that isn't a bad idea for story. In practice, Clark lines up a string of lame, unfunny L.A. stereotypes, from a fawning gay fashion designer to a grizzled old racist director with a gun fetish.
Granted, there's something appealingly nutzoid about Wassup Rockers' wild tonal shifts, and the movie offers some mild thrills, from the energized hardcore punk soundtrack to the voyeuristic look at the way racism differs in poor L.A. (where the boys are surrounded by hip-hop-loving blacks) and rich L.A. (where they're surrounded by eager-for-"authenticity" whites). Broken down metaphorically, Wassup Rockers even has something to say about the conflict between the drab aimlessness of life in the sticks and the dopey unreality of life in showbiz central. But Clark's cast of amateurs gets needlessly bruised in the process of having their lives transformed into art. Clark surely identifies more with the kids than with the hideous Hollywood types they meet, but in standing aloof and making the boys look as dull as possible, he treats them no better than the giggling white chicks and randy trendies who just want to see them drop their pants.