Anarchy in the UT

"SLC Punk" is a slam-dancing "Afterschool Special."


Mary Elizabeth Williams
April 16, 1999 8:29PM (UTC)

Matthew Lillard is the sort of gangly, surfer-speak nerd who looks like he
could pummel you into hamburger meat at the slightest provocation. That's
why the actor, who's already made his mark playing Ritalin-deprived bundles
of nerves in "Scream" and "She's All That," is the perfect choice to play an '80s punk
trapped in a stifling Mormon town. As Stevo, a Salt Lake City youth who
dares to be different, Lillard reflexively flips the bird to everything in
his path, stabs his fingers into his temples in frustration and beats up
on rednecks. Yet he's also a dedicated pre-law student who isn't too hip
for lunch and heart-to-heart talks with his dad. He's the contradictory
essence of what so many Reagan-era punks really were -- nice kids with a
whole lot of rage to channel.

Stevo's quest to reconcile his dueling impulses is the crux of "SLC Punk,"
a meandering exploration into the time in a young man's life when he
realizes he can't have blue hair forever. The movie starts out as a sweet
piece of hardcore pie, full of energy and "Repo Man"-esque satire, but
ultimately deteriorates into a Percodan-flavored "Afterschool Special."
It's too bad, because before then, it kicks more ass than an angry bouncer.

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As the film follows Stevo and his best friend Heroin Bob (Matthew Goorjian)
-- an ironically named Travis Bickle clone with a dread of drugs and
needles -- through their liberating and terrifying first few post-collegiate
months, "SLC Punk" cleverly captures both the challenges of making the scene
in a town where there is no scene and the defiant longing
to hang on to youthful identity as long as possible before adult
obligations encroach. Stevo and Bob fancy themselves anarchists, society
dropouts with no goal except smashing the state. But unlike the mall rat
"poseurs" they rail against, they're too soft-hearted and too bright for
their own rhetoric. Stevo and Bob suspect they'll eventually get off their
butts and settle down, just as they understand that they desperately need
to believe in something. It's just that they're not sure what that
something might be.

Writer-director James Merendino, who grew up in Salt Lake City, has a
quirky affinity for the punk period and its screwy, angry idealism. He
doesn't just Mohawk and Doc Martenize his cast and call it a day -- he's
shrewd enough to litter Stevo and Bob's circle with Euro-trash hangers-on,
buttoned down hardcore fanatics and ska-fueled mods, all of whom are slam
dancing as fast as they can to avoid facing their own futures. Merendino's
affection for the scene saves "SLC Punk" from becoming just another
hardee-har-har trip into the land of zany hairstyles, and Lillard's nervous
intensity gives the film its razor-blade on a neck-chain edge. But the movie
sputters in its near nonstop visual trickery -- with gimmicks that betray
a directorial uncertainty and crowded moments that cry out for
simplification. Having Lillard frequently break out of the scene to address
the viewer is entertaining, in a "Ferris Bueller" way, but other devices
overreach. Merendino directs like he just got himself a new camera and
wants to try every technique in the film school book -- juxtaposing
images, freeze framing, bouncing between time and place. Such
pupil-stressing overload is an odd choice, especially once the story line
grinds down from witty nostalgia to wistful cautionary tale.

Like the recent British release "Metroland," "SLC Punk" grapples with the
concepts of growing up and selling out, and asks if the two really always
have to go together. Stevo, who early on claims he only went to college to
"bring down the system" and "get a 4.0 in damage," knows his
rationalizations are bullshit. A decent young man with a filthy rich,
corporate lawyer for a dad, he's wise enough to not buy into rampant,
"greed is good" consumerism, autonomous enough to be revolted by fellow
punks who live their lives according to stupid song lyrics. He can debate
chaos theory and deconstruct his reasons for battering local cowboys, but
is he smart enough to justify turning into his father? More pressing, is he smart
enough to keep it from happening in the first place?

For most of the film, that conundrum remains in the background, as Stevo
gleefully goes to see bands, hangs out with his friends and expounds to
the audience on such tangential subjects as who beats on whom in the
natural order of things, how to put up with tedious weirdos in order to get
decent weed and why living in Utah means buying beer in Wyoming. It's all
amusing, if not exactly profound, and Stevo's posse, especially Heroin Bob, are so
winningly likable in the most messed-up way that a little rambling here and
there is forgivable. But when Stevo begins to question whether his punk
lifestyle has any meaning, the film veers into the trite zone. It's not
enough for Stevo, already established as an achieving, inherently
responsible individual, to come to his own conclusions organically. He has
to endure a series of disturbing incidents, meet a nice normal girl and
then, for the coup de grbce, have a life-changing trauma. When fate
steps in late in the film, it feels like a mean cheat. Sure, big moments
come along in life while you're trying to make up your mind, but when films
force characters to act completely in opposition to their firmly
established personalities, the effect is smarmy and cut-rate.

To give "SLC Punk" its due, one must admit that it has wit and spirit, and
in more abundance than most contemporary-setting youth culture films currently out
there. Despite its painfully pat finale, the film does strike a
bittersweet chord in anyone still clinging to the part of themselves that
once dressed funny and scoffed at the idea of ever fitting in. As Lillard
contemplates his future with a mixture of resignation and relief, those
evil eyes of his convey the possibility that he just may still be able to
bring down the system from within. And any film that can leave you humming
the Dead Kennedys long after you've left the theater holds out Stevo's dim
post-punk beacon of hope -- that no matter what happens in life, it helps to
carry a song in your heart, preferably one that's really fast and really
loud.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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