Teenagers fuck, get each other pregnant, fight, take drugs, and are disaffected. So far, so very, very Larry Clark. But “Marfa Girl” which premiered at the Rome Film Festival last night, also foregrounds elements that haven’t historically cropped up quite so regularly in the filmmaker’s back catalog, like race relations, spirituality, and adults defined in ways other than their effect on teens, including, rarest of all, a functional and mutually loving parent/child relationship. It also boasts an intriguing structure whereby you might think it’s business as usual for the first two thirds, until in the final act, tension that you hadn’t really been aware of building comes to a head, almost the way you might expect in a genre film — a psychological thriller or a horror perhaps — as the bad guy gets what’s coming to him and the harmonious community is thus exorcised of its chief demon. Not all of these elements work, by any means, and their last-act appearance feels a little out of left field, but they suggest the green shoots of change in the director’s approach, which, however tentative, we would welcome. Larry Clark is a filmmaker with a well-proven, tried-and-true skill set. But any approach, no matter how transgressive initially, becomes less effective with repeated reuse, and in that airlessness it felt like Clark ended up trying for simple shock value (hello, "Ken Park"). So it’s good to see him crack a window here and give us even a hint of something we haven’t seen from him multiple times before.
Marfa, Texas is a border town of the kind of run-down scrub-grass variety that somehow becomes glamorous through Clark’s lens – all windy skies and desolate exteriors, with the interiors not much more detailed. We focus on a small community within Marfa, centered on the house of Mary (Mary Farley), her son Adam (Adam Mediano), his friends and girlfriend Inez (Mercedes Maxwell). The teens get high and get it on in various permutations, but Adam and Mary are continually harassed by local Border Patrol officer Tom (Jeremy St. James), who is disliked by his two Hispanic colleagues for the racist he is. Tom’s behavior becomes increasingly gruesome and threatening, culminating in a night of sexual and physical violence.
Thats the topline, and for a Clark film, even to be able to talk in terms of ‘plot’ is a relatively unusual occurrence, with him usually favoring a non-linear, sometimes circular, overlapping, impressionistic structure. And that’s certainly not wholly abandoned here. We're still often unsure about exact chronology (where it is unimportant), and even within scenes, like the sex scene between Adam and Inez, shots are edited in such a way that no clear sequence is established. And Clark being a master of what we could call the cinema of digression, there are also extended scenes of characters telling each other anecdotes and stories that do not necessarily drive events forward, in fact, they often stall the film’s momentum, not always to its detriment.
So we get Mary and “healer” Tina talking about the deaths of their pets and their spiritual take on it, we hear patrolman Ulysses’ talk about his time in the army, and we get frank and sometimes amusing conversations about sex from Marfa Girl herself (Drake Burnett), the free spirited, sexually hyperactive artist. Perhaps because it’s so familiar now, the teen sex doesn’t really shock, but perhaps that's also because while graphic, it’s only lingered upon when it's between characters who are at least fond of each other. The rape scenes, by contrast with those of consensual sex, are brief and more suggested than explicit. There is no equivalent here of the visceral discomfort of something like the autoerotic asphyxiation scene in “Ken Park,” instead unease is built up by the age-old mechanism of making us care about the characters and then putting them in peril. Maybe that’s the difference — here we like these kids, they’re mostly good to, and accepting of, each other; the menace comes from outside the group. Perhaps its closest kinship, (and also as in regards to race), is with Clark's last narrative feature, 2005's "Wassup Rockers," which lends weight to the idea that "Marfa Girl"'s approachability might be not just an anomaly, but an evolution.
However, we shouldn’t overstate the film’s difference from what has gone before. ‘Marfa Girl” is not going to convince Clark’s detractors, nor will it disappoint his fans, as most of what people consider his trademarks are in place. Some of the actors, many of them amateurs cast locally, are a little awkward in their roles, and sometimes we slip just a little to far into youth-worship territory with the camera obsessing over the gorgeousness of its young cast. It certainly looks like a Larry Clark film but it is perhaps a shame that his aesthetic has been so appropriated by other indie filmmakers, music videos and commercials that it feels a bit shopworn.
But Clark’s talent for coaxing performances of naked (yes, both senses) unselfconsciousness from his young casts is unparalleled, and his challenge to our complacent preconceptions about teenagers was prescient with “Kids,” to the point that the issues he first explored are frequent news items today. These factors alone makes us think he doesn’t deserve to be left out in the undistributed wilderness much longer, if he wants to come in from the cold. This is not the film that will do it — indeed, Clark has already decided to avoid the whole issue by releasing “Marfa Girl” through his website — but it does suggest a small tack into the wind for the director, that could take him into less familiar waters and eventually, back into theaters. [B-]