A winning and unexpectedly observant lark about seven Latino skateboarding pals in South-Central L.A. While writer-director Larry Clark again exhibits an ability to observe young people without judging them he expands his cinema by taking an unflinching look at racial politics between minorities. Pic should score young fans in urban and suburban climes.

After the extraordinarily daring “Ken Park,” writer-director Larry Clark is in a friskier mood with “Wassup Rockers,” a thoroughly winning and unexpectedly observant lark about the antics of seven Latino skateboarding pals in South-Central Los Angeles. While Clark again exhibits an ability to observe young people without judging them (although this time there’s less sexual bravado and explicitness), he expands his cinema by posing his hardy band of skaters against a hostile, black-dominated setting that takes an unflinching look at racial politics between minorities. With apt marketing, pic should score young fans in urban and suburban climes when it rolls out in April.

A pre-title, split-screen intro of Jonathan (Jonathan Velasquez), talking about his pals, sets up the pic’s slightly improvised manner. Sweet-faced and soft-spoken Jonathan is a leader among his buddies, all of whom wear tight black jeans and long hair after their heroes, the Ramones. Group is closely based on young men Clark bonded with at a Los Angeles skate park.

The sight of Latino kids bucking hip-hop dominance is interesting, but their total absorption in punk rock and skateboarding is sure to set off discussions about new youth lifestyle trends. Clark may be the first Anglo ilmmaker who has deliberately depicted young African-Americans as the prime adversaries of another inner-city minority group: The pic shows the Latino youths clashing with black neighbors and teens.

First half observes Jonathan and his gang. As a sign of emerging self-pride, Milton aka “Spermball” (Milton Velasquez) tells everyone to call him by his proper name. Meanwhile, Jonathan tries to get romantic with g.f. Iris (Iris Zelaya), while Rosalia (Ashley Maldonado) simply likes sex, which intimidates the dudes, especially Porky (Usvaldo Panameno).

Jonathan’s best friend Kico (Francisco Pedrasa) borrows a car to drive to Beverly Hills, but after they’re stopped by a cop, they ditch the car and take a bus to Beverly Hills High, where they do some wild skating on a staircase.

Soon, two horny Bev Hills students, Jade and Nikki (Laura Cellner, Jessica Steinbaum), cozy up to them. Fascinating interlude with Kico and Nikki talking honestly about each other’s vastly different lives pulls this Clark film away from teen sex and toward a fresh perspective on American youth.

After a scene at Jade’s house, what follows is Clark’s homage to “The Swimmer,” with the gang hopping fences and landing in various Beverly Hills backyards, leaving destruction in their wake.

The various parts of the story may not congeal entirely to a whole, but the film’s way of balancing sheer fun, loose energy and sincere feelings makes for a completely engaging experience. Clark simply lets his kids be themselves, and draws real charm out of Velasquez and Steinbaum.

Though it contains little of the visual splendor of “Ken Park,” the production is sharply assembled, with Steve Gainer’s lensing, Alex Blatt’s editing and a string of punk tunes setting eyes and ears to full attention.

Wassup Rockers

Production

A First Look Pictures release of a Henry Winterstern presentation of a Glass Key production. Produced by Larry Clark, Kevin Turen, Henry Winterstern. Executive producers, Patrick Meehan, Sharon Stone. Co-producer, Richard Shore. Directed, written by Larry Clark. Story, Clark, Matthew Frost.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, DV), Steve Gainer; editor, Alex Blatt; music, Harry Cody; production designer, John DeMeo; set decorator, Peggy Paola; costume designer, Maryam Malakpour; makeup, Eleanor Sabaduquia; sound (Dolby Digital), Steve Weiss, Jerry Wolf; supervising sound editor, Bruce Stubblefield; special effects coordinator, Josh Hakian; stunt coordinator, Michael Long; associate producers, Arianne Fraser, Frost; assistant directors, Nicholas Lee, Rudy Van Zyl; casting, Julia Kim. Reviewed on videodisc, Los Angeles, Jan. 18, 2006. (In Slamdance Film Festival -- Opening Night. Also in Toronto Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Jonathan - Jonathan Velasquez Kico - Francisco Pedrasa Milton/Spermball - Milton Velasquez Porky - Usvaldo Panameno Eddie - Eddie Velasquez Louie - Luis Rojas Salgado Carlos - Carlos Ramirez
With: Iris Zelaya, Ashley Maldonado, Laura Cellner, Jessica Steinbaum, Janice Dickinson. (English, Spanish dialogue)

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