For his first film of the second go-round, Jake brought us 1998’s SLC Punk! (the exclamation point is obligatory), a high-production-value indie film directed by James Merendino. If you haven’t heard of James Merendino, you’re not alone. He hasn’t exactly had a distinguished career. Prior to SLC Punk! he made six films, all of which appear to be completely forgettable (one made-for-video, one whose video release has a different title than the theatrical release, one apparently Alan Smithee’d) and following up SLC Punk! he made another six forgettable movies (one more with a title change for video, one where he and a co-director decided to credit themselves as “the Terror Twins”), though one of these is apparently a somewhat respectable Dogme 95 flick (#13, for those who are into that sort of thing). It’s fair to say that the success in Merendino’s directorial career, such as it is, lies entirely in SLC Punk! – which may explain why Merendino is now apparently in production on SLC Punk 2. (I’m skeptical. Very, very skeptical.)
But without regard to the director’s lackluster career, this one film is actually quite well done, if it doesn’t really have much of a plot. And it’s a bit of a cult hit. I’ll note that in searching for pictures to go with my reviews, I have never found a movie that had a higher percentage of image hits be animated .gifs, images with text/subtitles, or often a combination of both. I can’t explain it, and I won’t try. So now, for what it’s worth, I’ll give a brief rundown of SLC Punk!
This is Stevo. It’s 1985, and fresh off of getting really good grades in college, Stevo is looking forward to living the good life (the post college one where you don’t get a job but become an anarchist instead) as one of the only true (non-poser) punks in the punk paradise of Salt Lake City.
This is Heroin Bob. Heroin Bob is ironically named, because he’s paranoid about taking any drugs whatsoever despite being this whole hardcore anarchist punk dude whose buddies all drug out. (See, it’s kind of like nicknaming a really big guy “Tiny”, you get it? Yes, of course you get it.) It’s nice to know that Nancy Reagan did get her message across to at least one person. Heroin Bob sticks to his booze and cigarettes, thank you very much, and he’s Stevo’s roommate and constant companion.
This is Mark. Mark is kind of this older dude with apparently a ton of money who likes to hang out with the punks and supply them with weed and show off stuff like Laserdiscs. He’s a bit unstable (OK, a lot) and he’s not terribly important to the story, but I love this picture.
This is Sandy. Sandy is technically not Stevo’s girlfriend, but she might as well be. It’s a casual relationship because only posers fall in love, you know. Here we see Sandy having a bad hair day while a psychedelic trip makes Stevo imagine that a nuclear bomb has been dropped on Salt Lake City.
Stevo and Bob go through punk/anarchist life like you might imagine most punk/anarchists would – constantly reassuring themselves that they’re the real thing and definitely not posers, throwing big parties with alcohol brought in from Wyoming despite not apparently having any source of income, and beating up random groups of Neo-Nazis. All in all, they actually seem like pretty upstanding members of society, outside of the whole not having a job thing.
Steve’s dad, if anything, is the character that actually moves the plot, such as it is, along. It’s not that he’s a hardass – in fact he’s such a timid hippie that he can’t discipline his own kid – but as a former-Woodstocker-turned-Reagan-Republican, he’s trying to get his punk son to buy into…society, I guess. Stevo got great grades, so why not apply to Harvard Law? Stevo is not impressed by the suggestion, but his dad does make the salient point that he clearly put in the effort to get the grades, which isn’t really a very hardcore punk thing to do.
Anyway, when Stevo’s world finally comes crashing down around him, it happens quick. At a party, he walks in on Sandy having sex with another guy, and even though they weren’t technically exclusive, he gets all jealous about it. Thus begins the slide of his anarcho-cred.
Before too long he’s introduced to a girl named Brandy, who is hosting a party and immediately takes a shine to Stevo. Of course, she immediately challenges his whole punk/anarchist lifestyle and basically calls him out as a poser. He’s mad, but he totally makes out with her anyway. Meanwhile, Heroin Bob is drunk off his gourd and claiming they’re vitamins, somebody dumps him a handful of percodan. He takes them all. Then he gets really messed up and violent and Stevo has to take him home.
Heroin Bob was right all this time, because the percodans get him, and get him good. Stevo is naturally distraught, but he also realizes that Bob was always the ringleader in the anarcho-punk stuff. Without Bob around to hold him to the straight and narrow (and let’s be honest, even Bob had been slipping a bit, having definitely fallen in love with his girlfriend and thus breaking the punk-anarcho code). Given that Bob is gone, and given that his dad forged an application to Harvard Law (Stevo got in), well, you can guess the rest:
Stevo comes to the realization that perhaps the best way to rebel against the system is from the inside. From the inside! While legally making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and driving fancy cars – that’ll put a spoke in their wheel! Well, at least he cleans up well.
For not really having a plot, it’s a pretty good movie. For the most part it’s a series of unconnected scenes that act as humorous illustrations of the punk life. They could have been anything – I mean, there’s no crucial narrative thread – but they’re engaging. Lillard is more or less brilliant. I do think that the scene where he reacts to Bob’s death is perhaps one of the best of its kind that I can ever remember seeing. The style – lots of fourth-wall breaking and freeze shots for narration from Stevo – is perhaps not supremely original, but it just fits. And there’s something satisfying about Stevo’s journey. In the end, he wasn’t beaten down by the world, he didn’t sell out (like he always felt his parents had done), he just gradually and with some internal struggle came to the realization that however much of a rebel he felt like, he truly belonged on the inside and not on the outside of society. He’s not selling out, he’s signing up.
I have to say, I’m glad that Jake showed this, because I’m quite sure I’d never have decided on seeing it if he hadn’t pushed it on me.