There’s a scene 30 minutes into Marfa Girl that’s deeply strange. Three of writer-director Larry Clark’s nonprofessional actors—Tina Rodriguez, Mary Farley, and Rodriga Lloreda, who are also named as such in the film’s fiction—stand around in a dusty field in Marfa, Texas. Mary and Tina discuss in great detail the recent deaths of loved ones, and Bobby Johnston’s nylon-string plucking lays a bed of melancholy to complement their spiritually inclined exchange. But something’s amiss, as we can indisputably hear Rodriga listening along, but Tina and Mary never make eye contact with him, and Clark’s camera refuses to visually identify him. Eventually, the eponymous Marfa girl (Drake Burnette), a visiting nude artist, joins the circle and, after a brief heart to heart with Tina about sonic therapy, starts engaging the previously ignored Rodriga. The sequence splits off into a second movement. This time there’s no musical accompaniment, Tina and Mary are the ones disregarded by camera and characters, and the conversation between Rodriga and the artist—about her “studio” where we’ve seen her sketching two freshly pleasured Mexican teens just moments before—plays like a porno’s clumsy dramatic foreplay.
The peculiarities of this scene—which also include a sense of the cameraman being taken by surprise when Burnette shows up—far exceed those present anywhere else in Clark’s first feature since 2005’s Wassup Rockers, and yet they represent a condensed version of what it’s like to watch Marfa Girl on the whole: a feeling of careening between different tonal registers and thematic angles in ways that might be attributable to the amateurism of the cast one moment and to Clark’s awkward filmmaking the next. A certain degree of quality inconsistency is to be expected in Clark’s cinema of hormonal awkwardness acted out by camera-virginal youngsters; one could argue that it’s even embraced by the director himself. But, in shoehorning its players into a melodramatic community-rebirth narrative, Marfa Girl finds their performance deficiencies functioning less as signs of authentic teenage behavior than as an incompetent carrier of plot.
Fittingly, Marfa Girl excels where Clark’s films have always done their most honest work: the simple observation of social interactions among emotionally guarded kids. Gangly main character Adam (Adam Mediano), like many of Clark’s protagonists a greasy-haired skater, shares several long-winded scenes with his elders, including his mother Mary and his pregnant social studies teacher, Miss Jones (Lindsay Jones). None of these bits ring as true as an afternoon hangout between Adam, his friend, Jessie (Jessie Tejada), and his neighbor, Donna (Indigo Rael), in which the three of them smoke weed, share meandering conversation, and noodle around on a Kaoss Pad with Donna’s pre-linguistic child. Few directors have had more consistent experience sculpting maladroit acting into compellingly untidy communication, and here the wisdom shows through in the fluidity of the editing (by Affonso Gonçalves), which lingers on telling gestures and facial expressions while leaving some dialogue only half-heard.
Such casual touches diminish, however, when the film begins digging more deeply into its larger narrative dynamic between the aimless curiosity of the teenagers, the free-spirited sexuality of the Marfa Girl, and the pervasive hostility of the Border Patrol force. Jeremy St. James holds his own as the racist, misogynist officer Tom, but his crass character—a tormented soul, as we learn in a series of heavy-handed injections of psychological backstory late in the story—seems to emerge from another film entirely, bringing along verbal cruelty, unlawful police seizures, and rapes mostly to shoulder the plot along. The same could be said of a third-act nadir when Burnette’s character persuades even the most staunchly professional patrolman into having a go at psychedelic mushrooms. The resulting trip devolves into shaky-cam debauchery and an eventual eruption of the tensions in worldview—the artists’ free-love attitude, the cops’ strict machismo, the kids’ stoned naïveté—otherwise coexisting in nonviolent acquiescence until now.
Ethnic conflict, generational clashes, and sexual carnality are nothing new in Clark’s universe of tanned flesh, dirty ’staches, and distant adults. What’s happened with Marfa Girl is that these thematic threads have been hitched to a plot that makes their inclusion feel first and foremost like points to stress on a diagram rather than natural extensions of the milieu. Clark’s inclination toward explicit depictions of teen sexuality has always flirted with the pornographic, but the addition of an outsider character like the Marfa Girl whose chief role is to be promiscuous and to share her thoughts on her promiscuity with everyone she meets serves mostly to underline these directorial instincts as a perverse intrusion on the fictional environment. When Marfa Girl starts doubling down on flesh-on-flesh contact, it’s easy to feel like Clark has revealed his hand, and from there it’s a short jump to recognizing everything as a bit contrived.