Marfa is the small Texas town that has been invaded by creative types ever since minimalist artist Donald Judd bought into the town in 1971. Before that, it was probably best known for serving as a location of James Dean’s last film, “Giant,” in 1956. In more recent times, Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”) and the Coen Brothers (“No Country For Old Men”) have taken advantage of the bygone era’s lingering architecture in the main streets of the town. There’s even a much-photographed artistic interpretation of a Prada store on the highway. Marfa is hip.
Enter Larry Clark, famed for his photographs and films that look at the underbelly of American life, with a particular eye on the behavior of adolescents — mainly bored teenagers who no longer have to answer to their parents and have discovered sex. The first shot of Clark’s latest feature, “Marfa Girl,” is of a skateboard, the onetime shorthand for rebellion and outsider culture used to signal Clark welcoming the audience back to the territory explored in his book “Tulsa” and films such as “Kids” and “Wassup Rockers.”
On the skateboard is 16-year-old Adam (Adam Mediano), chastised by his teacher for not applying himself at school. He and his friends have just formed a band, “The Marfa Baiters.” His breaks from band practice are spent trying to convince his first love, skinny Inez (Mercedes Maxwell) to sleep with him. Not that the good looking buck, correctly described as looking like ‘a young Mick Jagger,’ need to worry too much about girls. Plenty of them are already hopping into bed with him.
Surprisingly, the only girl that doesn’t sleep with Adam is Marfa Girl (Drake Burnette). An artist who has come to town from Austin to take up a residency at the Chinati foundation, she specializes in drawing nudes, mostly after she has slept with them. She talks about sleeping with Adam a lot, telling him how, when he reaches the age of consent, he’s going to have the ride of his life (just as long, she says, as he has mastered the art of pleasing a woman). Adam has a long way to go, admitting “all I know about the clit is what I’ve learned on ‘South Park.'”
While in his view of teenage life, the 69-year-old director seems stuck going around the same skate park, Clark uses the premise of a liberal artist in a conservative town to explore the contradictions in modern America. Despite all of Marfa’s artistic pretensions, the town remains a place where corporal punishment is part of school life and pupils have to pledge allegiance to both the American and Texan flags.
Border guards have a major presence in the film. Their new base is in Marfa despite it being 68 miles from the Mexican border. Made up primarily of Latinos, Marfa Girl has no qualms about asking them how they feel about patrolling their own people. The innate racism of the statement is lost on the girl. It’s just one of many conversations that Clark lets play out despite the obvious clichés and tedium. This also happens with conversations about new age practices and art. The director occasionally struggles to find a tricky balance: He wants to relay the boredom of Marfa life without inducing it, but these conversations tend to drag.
The most troubled character is the white border guard patrolman Tom (Jeremy St James). He’s infatuated with Adam’s hippy mother (and just about any other female that crosses his path). Bullying and violence is his modus operandi; naturally, he features heavily in the explosive climax.
Despite the social commentary, Clark’s first feature-length directing credit in seven years never quite hits the heights of his previous pictures. The lack of energy and desire to incorporate realism is simply at odds with some of the more extreme action. There are also extreme jumps and some corny images from sunsets to chicks. Nevertheless, the director is already working on “Marfa Girl 2,” which he intends to shoot in April. For it to be a success, Clark will need to find coherence for his arguments in between all the bony young flesh. Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? It won’t — at least not in any conventional fashion. At the Rome International Film Festival, Clark revealed that, starting November 20, he’s putting the film online and will be charging visitors five dollars to stream it. Fans of his work will be tempted, and young audiences may give it go as well, but it’s too early in the online streaming market to assume that “Marfa Girl” will land the 80,000 streams needed for it to actually make a profit.