You’re destined for disappointment if you approach Larry Clark’s latest provocation, Ken Park, as an actual film rather than a moment in time—at least that’s what the film’s dreamy bookends would have you believe. “Out of the mouth of the beast,” reads Peach’s father from the Holy Bible not long after catching the girl going down on her boyfriend. Said beast may as well be the titular skater boy, whose death in the opening scene of the film more or less informs and explains away the film’s moribund proceedings. Shortly after Ken Park’s death, one character observes how the boy’s mother came to believe that his spirit was still with her because his toothbrush went missing. I can’t imagine Ken Park being anywhere near as tolerable as it is without the tender and surreal uplift of its brilliant bookends, but it’s also difficult not to take these lovely moments as desperate attempts to offer a context for this otherwise familiar Kids procedural.
Blame it on Harmony Korine that the film lacks the satirical bite of Bully and credit co-director Ed Lachman for the sadness buried beneath its surface sleaze. Predictably, the parents are all monsters of some kind and there’s an excuse for every teenager’s bad behavior: Shawn (James Bullard) sleeps with his girlfriend’s mother; the parent-less Tate (James Ransone) viciously lashes out at his three-legged dog and grandparents; Peaches (Tiffany Limos) clearly likes kink because her father is a religious freak; and Claude is oblivious to the fact that his skateboard apparently embodies his father’s desire to fuck him. Some of the film’s thorniest sequences should have been played for laughs; instead they’re just unintentionally funny (little Zoe watches softcore porn on the television while mom folds her laundry upstairs, and Peaches apparently miscalculates how long it takes for her father to get home from her mother’s grave).
The film’s non-simulated sex scenes are what got the filmmakers in trouble; not surprisingly, they’re also some of the most euphoric moments in the film. When Shawn goes down on his girlfriend Hanna’s mother, the innocent obedience in the boy’s eyes becomes the first in series of subjugatations Korine points out between the film’s adults and teenagers. Whether its Claude cutting his mother’s toenails or spotting his father as he weight-lifts, the more devastating abuses in the film are often the ones that don’t involve gratuitous displays of physical violence. There’s certainly not much of a plot going on here, but that’s because Clark and Lachman are more concerned with mapping out an aimless, suffocating state-of-mind. Ken Park doesn’t pretend to represent the entire teenage experience in America. If you can get past the somewhat obvious reference to Jerry Springer in the film, you’ll notice that none of the film’s characters laugh at the show’s circus act. That’s because the film’s lower-class characters live the very lives that are mocked on TV.
It’s inevitable that Tate will auto-asphyxiate and give Clark his money shot, and its inevitable that Clark will pan down to show Claude’s father’s penis while the man pees, and its inevitable that this sad man will get into bed with his son after being enticed by a series of pictures of the teenager as a child. As such, Clark is every bit as exploitative as the film’s ghoulish adults, but while his lascivious gaze is still no less problematic than it was in his earlier films, this time it seems to go hand-in-hand with the film’s own abusive rituals. Or maybe Clark’s dirty flights of fancy are so easy to take this time around because they’re so frequently followed by moments of heartening pathos. For every shock to the system, Lachman is there to record the ever so brief moment of better-than-here hopefulness that lingers in the eyes of the film’s lost youth.