The picture begins with the title character blowing his brains out one sunny day at a park. Then there’s a teenage boy graphically servicing his girlfriend’s mom; the “good girl” daughter of a Bible-quoting dad who’s really a bondage-loving nympho; the autoerotic asphyxiation freak who masturbates in loving close-up before stabbing his grandparents to death in their bed; and the drunken macho father who sexually assaults his sleeping son. Exploitative, deliberately provocative pornography? Courageous revelation of the secret life of teens? Calculated sensationalism? Telling it like it is? These are the arguments that will inevitably cause fur to fly anywhere in the vicinity of “Ken Park,” a sexually explicit slab of teenage ennui from that self-proclaimed expert on the skateboard set, Larry Clark, working this time in tandem with ace cinematographer Ed Lachman. Beautifully crafted but emotionally dispiriting and alienating in its insistence on spotlighting only the negative aspects of life, this Euro-financed contribution to contempo Americana resembles certain recent French films in its unblinking depiction of raw sex. With attention-grabbing controversy and a measure of critical praise in store, international sales will be strong to territories without censorship restraints, and an enterprising U.S. distrib could generate decent mileage with the film as an unrated specialized attraction.
More explicit but less “shocking” than Clark’s 1995 debut feature “Kids,” “Ken Park” was also written by Harmony Korine and was originally intended as Clark’s first picture until “Kids” financing came along. Films are similar in their matter-of-fact look at teens doing things that older folk prefer not to think about them doing, and in their aesthetic attractiveness. “Kids” had the advantage, however, of a genuinely unnerving narrative hook, while “Ken Park,” for all its vaunted sympathy for the kids it portrays, increasingly feels like a bunch of scenes included for the primary reason that their like hasn’t been seen before.
Focus this time is on adolescents whose domestic lives are beyond screwed up. Set in the central California town of Visalia, action moves from the startling violence of the opening to narrator Shawn (James Bullard) performing extensive oral favors on pretty blond housewife Rhonda (Maeve Quinlan), while her youngest daughter is plunked in front of the TV watching thonged models. Claude (Stephen Jasso) lives in miserable terror of his hulking alcoholic, unemployed dad (Wade Andrew Williams), who thinks nothing of stomping on his beloved skateboard and threatening him physically.
Rounding out the collection of male misfits is Tate (James Ransome), a tall, skinny boy whose grandparents are doing their mild-mannered best to raise him, even though that’s not nearly good enough. It’s Ransome who gets to perform a solo rendition of “In the Realm of the Senses” before doing what it took two Menendez brothers to do.
Most prominent girl is Peaches (Tiffany Limos), a superficially sweet and demure creature who looks just like her late mother and is therefore rather too tenderly adored by her religious fanatic father (Julio Oscar Mechoso). As soon as Dad leaves the house, however, she’s tying up her b.f. (Mike Apaletegui) and riding him as if the Kentucky Derby were at stake.
There’s little skill in Korine’s morosely lifelike dialogue, while character motivation is keyed to overplaying primal urges in response to living conditions that, but for one, are more pathetic than palpably unbearable. Exception involves Claude, whose pregnant mother (Amanda Plummer) is indifferent and whose father is an over-the-top caricature of an abusive parent who takes out his own frustrations on a defenseless kid.
The father’s desperate cry upon reaching rock bottom — “Nobody loves me!” — sums up the essential dilemma faced by all the characters to varying degrees, and viewers who can wade through all the foreground sordidness and connect to the characters’ humanity based on their need will no doubt find the film a sincere and powerful account of damaged lives.
The true nature of the film, however, is summed up by the scene in which the father stumbles into Claude’s bedroom to utter his lament. At first it looks as though he’s just going to fall asleep next to his son, and this would have been enough to convey the desired message of intimacy desired but thwarted. But, no, the filmmakers, in their relentless urge to always go all the way and point up how beastly people can be, insist upon having the father attempt to force himself sexually on Claude, who wakes up and reacts violently before matters go too far.
Although pic is loaded with fully exposed sexual encounters and convincing simulations, it appears to stop short of actual penetration. Visually, the film is quite lovely. These days, one expects such a gritty tale to be predictably shot handheld and digitally, but Lachman, credited as sharing both directorial and lensing duties with Clark, keeps the camera steady and the events bathed in the light of heightened naturalism that he states was influenced by ’60s Eastern European cinema.
Thesping is nothing if not game across the board.