Enfant terrible Harmony Korine, who scripted the controversial “Kids,” makes a puzzlingly idiosyncratic, and not entirely effective, feature directorial debut with “Gummo,” a realistic, uncompromising look at youth alienation in Middle America. Fine Line should expect modest returns for this original, often disturbing film; while it may appeal to adolescents, pic is likely to alienate more conservative indie audiences with its nonlinear structure, downbeat tone and off-putting imagery.
Korine is 23, and his age— and corresponding sensibility and aesthetics — are crucial to understanding a work that displays all the characteristics of a first film. “Gummo” is personal, honest and raw, but it’s also erratic, self-indulgent and full of ideas that are not fully explored.
The non-narrative movie is set in Xenia, Ohio. Never having recovered from a devastating tornado in the 1970s, Xenia is hell-on-earth for youngsters: a poverty-stricken, numbingly boring place in which there’s nothing to do but kill time, often in violent ways. The offbeat, depressing tone is established in one of the first images — a TV set that lands on a tree during a tornado — and a narrator observing, “I saw a girl fly through the sky and I looked up her skirt.”
Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), a skinny adolescent, and his slightly older buddy, Tummler (Nick Sutton), spend their days and nights searching for distractions to mask their boredom. In an ironic twist on a classic Southern adventure a la Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, Korine presents his “heroes” as modern-day “hunters,” except that what’s left to hunt are stray cats, which they sell to a local supplier for a dollar a pound.
With their meager profits, the youngsters buy cheap glue to get high, or pay for sex; Cole (Max Perlich) pimps his retarded sister out of his suburban house. They seldom stay at home or communicate with their mostly absent families. Solomon’s Mom (Linda Manz, in her first major screen role since “Days of Heaven”) is just as bizarre and violence-prone as her son.
The secondary characters, which add considerable color, function as a collection of freaks. There’s Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell), a half-naked boy wearing rabbit ears who’s always seen skateboarding around town, a black midget and and two skinhead brothers. Dot (“Kids’ ” Chloe Sevigny) and Helen (Carisa Bara) are platinum-haired teenage sisters who are preoccupied with their nipples and with doting on their little sister; there is not a single figure who’s not weird or deviant in some way.
Korine is said to be influenced by Godard, Herzog, Fellini and other Euromasters, but he seems to have misinterpreted their innovations or adopted the wrong lessons. Godard’s early work was fractured and nonlinear, but also witty and never shapeless or amorphous, as “Gummo” is. Korine borrows from Cassavetes (and others) an improvisational style and preference for non-professional actors, but his movie lacks emotional depth or compelling performances.
Thematically, Korine’s work bears resemblance to Gregg Araki’s in its bleak despair over America’s “nowhere” youth, except that “Gummo” lacks Araki’s dark humor. Basically immature, the film is a collage of vignettes, images and sounds that are uneven in power, with Korine seeming to hope that his provocative mix of outlandish ingredients will form a meaningful narrative. They don’t — “Gummo” is a movie of moments.
Assisted by the great French lenser Jean Yves Escoffier (“Les Amants du Pont Neuf”), pic boasts some impressive stylistic touches that convey the tale’s realistic texture, but they often fail to reflect an overall vision. Truly disturbing in a few moments, and simply erratic in many others, “Gummo” is an eccentric film that showcases the raw talent of a young filmmaker who needs to find a more effective way to communicate with his audience.