With ``Wassup Rockers," Larry Clark wants you to know he's not such a bad guy after all. The photographer-turned-filmmaker became notorious with the release of 1995's ``Kids," a deadpan look at dead-end adolescence that featured such transgressive behavior as underage sex, drug use, and manipulative hedonism. More troubling than anything his cast did, though, was Clark's borderline-perv worship of their youthful bodies. Subsequent films like 2001's ``Bully " and 2002' s ``Ken Park " did little to clear away the stink of exploitation.
At the same time, you could tell Clark genuinely liked his actors and the characters they played -- he was touched by the way they couldn't see two minutes past tomorrow. ``Wassup Rockers" brings that tenderness to the surface.
The film is structured as a day in the life of seven Latino teenage boys as they mosey on skateboard from their rough home neighborhood in South Central LA to the foreign planet that is Beverly Hills. No reason -- they just want to check the place out and maybe try to score with some rich white girls. There's a little bit of drinking but no drugs, and we sense that these kids, with their unfashionable tight pants and frizzy long hair, are a self-contained anomaly even on their own turf.
The ``rockers," as they dub themselves (they've formed a band, like half the kids in America), don't have a leader, but they do have a few focal points. One is 15-year-old Jonathan (Jonathan Velasquez ), a shy dreamboat who's catnip to the girls and knows it -- to him, this is a source of recurrent wonder rather than arrogance. His friend Kico (Francisco Pedrasa ) is open-faced and playful under his ever-present wool cap, while Porky (Usvaldo Panameno ) is morose and given to absurdist suicide attempts. The goat of the group, a hefty kid nicknamed Spermball (Milton Velasquez ), is in the midst of outgrowing his lowly status.
We glean these things almost by accident, since Clark lets his young cast improvise their way through relationships that clearly exist off-camera. Far from being a horny-boy teen comedy like ``American Pie," ``Wassup Rockers" lopes along with slow, quasi-documentary realism; it knows that doing nothing is how most teenagers get through the day. The director wants his kids not to play themselves but be themselves, and since Latino teenage boys are about the last group to be shown with any honesty in American cinema, this makes the movie unique.
Unfortunately, Clark just flips the prevailing model on its head. The main characters may be refreshingly cliché-free, but almost everyone they meet in Beverly Hills is a stilted cartoon. A predatory teenybopper (Laura Cellner ), the swishy gay host (Jeremy Scott ) of a party the boys crash, a drunken actress (Janice Dickinson ) who topples into the bath she's giving Kico -- in dialogue and behavior, they're straight out of a bad 1980s sex comedy. These are mannequins, and when random violence erupts, we feel nothing.
A few scenes go interesting places. A Beverly Hills cop (Chris Neville ) harasses the rockers, but his racism barely makes a dent and the tension dissipates into disbelieving mirth. A bedroom scene between Kico and the teenybopper's friend (Jessica Steinbaum ) flirts with eroticism but settles into a long question-and-answer session in which the girl earnestly tries to figure out what makes this smiling alien tick.
Are you close to your friends? she asks. Not really, he says with a shrug -- it's more like we're just the same. There's a thought: ``Wassup Rockers" peeks into the hive mind of adolescent men and finds a mysterious support system. Now all Clark has to do is extend that humanity to the rest of the world.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.