July 14, 2006

‘Wassup Rockers’ A Revealing Look at Latino Punk Skateboarders

By Daffodil Altan
New America Media

There are two things that are immediately fantastic about “Wassup Rockers,” Larry Clark’s new day-in-the-life film about Latino hybrid punk rock skater boys growing up in South Central Los Angeles. First, the L.A. that the kids inhabit, and that is depicted in the film — with its noisy, lonely mid-freeway metro stations, lengthy bus rides and shabby playgrounds — is the L.A. that most working class Angelinos live in and few others see. “I had never seen this,” Clark says.

Second, the boys defy every stereotype that’s ever been slapped onto Latino kids in the United States (none in the group are Mexican, for example, though the white and black characters in the film repeatedly and mistakenly call them that).

At a pre-screening in San Francisco I was surrounded by a mostly middle-aged, white, male group that was utterly bemused by the Guatemalan/Salvadorean punk rocker skate-or-die madness — and poignancy — that Clark’s lens brought forth. Clark — well known for delving into the inner lives of teens, most notably in his 1995 debut film “Kids” — had a similar reaction when he first met the Latino skaters who later played themselves in his film.

Anyone who still clings to the idea that Latino males in the United States are either Cuban salseros, Central American migrant workers or baggy-pant wearing, hip-hop listening, gun-toting and gang-affiliated teens will be surprised by the seven boys in the film. They wear skin-tight jeans and ironic, slinky band shirts, keep their hair long and take their boards everywhere. They play in a metal band and practice in one parents’ bedroom with a sheet propped up as a divider. They drink here and there, but don’t smoke or inject anything.

“How did these kids get into punk rock?” one bemused viewer asked at the screening. Clark says a similar curiosity drove him to make the film. What neither knew was that punk rock is huge among first- and second-generation Latino kids growing up along the U.S.-Mexican border.

“My first thought was that I wanted you to see these kids because you don’t see these kids in film, and they’re real kids and they’re good kids, and they’re very compelling,” Clark says. He met the two leads in the film, Kico (Francisco Pedrasa) and Jonathon (Jonathon Velasquez) while doing a photo shoot in Venice three years ago. He was struck by their style and their obsession with skate-boarding. When he approached them he found out they had taken several buses to get from South Central to Venice so they could skate. He used them in the photo shoot, befriended them, and then spent roughly a year and half hanging out with them every Saturday while they skated. Only then did he start shooting.

In the dense, violence-ridden South Central L.A. that is the backdrop for the first half of the film, music and skating are the sacrosanct elements in the lives of Kico, Jonathon, Porky, Spermball and three other friends. The music and their boards save them from the dismal shabbiness of their lives, the racial tension between them and black kids in the neighborhood and their repeated encounters with death.

The acting in the film isn’t great — occasional glances at the camera by the boys, and stilted, self-conscious dialogue — but in the end that’s okay. These kids are the real thing, playing themselves and acting out their stories during the first half of the film, and taking a cinematic detour into Beverly Hills — where they skate some more, meet white girls and crash a few ritzy parties — during the second half. There’s a poignant authenticity in some of their fumbling. Many of the scenes were generated directly from stories the boys told Clark, or from moments he witnessed with them.

In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Kico, a sweet, goofy, weightlifting skater who always falls just shy of getting the girl, trades stories with a doe-eyed white teen from Beverly Hills in her bedroom. Her acting is precise and fantastic. The scene was not scripted. The teens are in their underwear in broad daylight. Kico is shy, and in his self-consciousness, movingly authentic. The two teens probe each other with hesitant curiosity. They know nothing about each other’s worlds. And what we see in Kico’s performance is that he isn’t acting, that he really doesn’t know this world.

Even in its sometimes pubescent fumbling, the film stays true to its original intent: to depict the lives of boys who don’t pretend to be perfect, who just do what they do because they want to be kids. By giving us a window into the identities they have creatively and defiantly carved out for themselves, perhaps Clark will help dispel some of the myths that often reduce Latino boys like Kico to bland, hopeless stereotypes.

Daffodil Altan is a writer and editor for New America Media.

Return to the Frontpage