SLC Punk! (1999)
Directed by James Merendino
Cast: Matthew Lillard, Michael Goorjian, Annabeth Gish, Til Schweiger, Jennifer Lien, Summer Phoenix, Devon Sawa, James Duval.
1999 97 minutes
Rated: (for extreme profanity, mild violence, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 25, 1999.
Director James Merendino's debut film, "SLC Punk!," short for "Salt Lake City," is said to be loosely based on his own experiences, and the film most definately does have an autobiographical feel to it. Although often uneven and flawed, it successfully and accurately captures the way of life for a certain group of people, as well as a definite time period.
Set in Salt Lake City during the Ronald Reagan era, circa 1985, Stevo (Matthew Lillard), a college graduate whose wealthy family wants him to continue his education at Harvard Law School, is one of the few so-called punks left in the seemingly dead-end town. Boosting short blue-dyed hair, Stevo is quick to narrate and talk to the camera about his personal views, including why he is an anarchist, and the reasons why he has chosen to be a punk, which is due to (1) rebellion, (2) individualism, and (3) because it is in his nature. Always with his best buddy in tow, "Heroin" Bob (Michael Goorjian) who, despite his name, is against all illegal drugs and is terrified of needles, Stevo lives in a torn-up, scummy building and spends his nights going to parties and punk-rock clubs. He definately has no desire to go to law school, believing it makes for a meaningless existence, but also realizing that he has no personal plans or goals of his own, and eventually begins to learn that he can't be a "punk" forever. Sooner or later, he's got to do something, anything, with his life.
Before seeing "SLC Punk!," actor Matthew Lillard's goofball, over-the-top persona had already grown tiresome for myself, and with such films as 1996's "Scream" and 1999's "She's All That," he essentially played the same character and didn't seem to be stretching or testing his acting abilities. That has all changed with this latest film, which not only makes Lillard the complete star, but also gives him a great deal of textural material to work with, thus helping him to fully develop into a three-dimensional and likable character whom you respect for his firm, individual beliefs, but still hope that he is able to make something more substantial of his life. To tell the truth, Lillard was the perfect choice for the role, and it's doubtful that anyone, not even someone more accomplished, could have pulled it off any better. There isn't a false note anywhere in his performance, and when he is on-screen discussing his opinions to the camera, he holds and mesmerizes the screen, which is something I never honestly expected from Lillard. Not only that, but without Lillard, "SLC Punk!" most likely would have been looked at as a failure of a movie, and I wouldn't have been able to give it a marginal recommendation. Fortunately, I can because for whatever weaknesses there appears to be in the writing, much of the material is salvaged by Lillard and miraculously has become oftentimes effective.
If only the screenplay, written by Merendino himself, had given the other various characters as much material to work with, "SLC Punk!," which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, might have been a great movie, but it unfortunately misses that prestigious mark. Michael Goorjian is given a little something to do as the naive "Heroin" Bob who, even after meeting and falling in love with a free-willing woman (Annabeth Gish), is still unable to see that the road he is hidding down is very bleak. Devon Sawa makes a brief, touching appearance as a fellow punk who, late in the film, is discovered to have been thrown out of his mother's house and is now a bum on the streets. Sawa's character, in fact, was wholeheartedly an original and intriguing creation, and it's too bad he wasn't given more screen time. Ditto for Summer Phoenix (younger sister of River and Joaquin), as Brandy, a young woman whom Stevo meets late in the picture and only helps him to see how he needs to make a u-turn in his life. The aforementioned Gish is criminally wasted, as is Jennifer Lien as a wild gal that Stevo briefly falls for before she is discovered to be cheating on him. If the supporting cast, whom are obviously a group of talented young actors, had been as fully realized as Stevo was, it would have given the film a little boost in its potential.
Another downfall that the film has is that the pacing was often in need of slowing down, as the near-constant action and noise occasionally tended to grate on the nerves. A more deliberate pace, and an increased number of scenes where the characters simply talked, would have ultimately improved the film on the whole.
Still, "SLC Punk!" is an assured first feature from Merendino, a filmmaker whom I look forward to his next film from. The basic morale of the film is eloquently hammered home and it was impossible not to get caught up in Stevo, who is one of the most unforgettable film characters I've come across so far this year. Greg Littlewood's magnificent cinematography paints Salt Lake City as a somewhat uneventful but pleasant place to visit, and various stylistic approaches, such as slow motion, freeze-frame, and quick editing flashes that give off a hallucinatory quality, all work well. "SLC Punk!" might have several flaws in its storytelling and writing aspects, which would have benefitted from tightening, but the film is an intelligent portrayal of a group of "punks" who are basically normal people struggling for their own freedom, and it is rare that we get such a realistic look into someone's life in today's films.
©1999 by Dustin Putman