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'SLC Punk!': Ode to the '80s

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 1999

  Movie Critic

'SLC Punk'
Matthew Lillard stars in "SLC Punk." (Sony Pictures Classics)

James Merendino
Matthew Lillard;
Michael A. Goorjian;
Annabeth Gish;
Jennifer Lien;
Christopher McDonald;
Devon Sawa
Running Time:
1 hour, 37 minutes
Contains sexual scenes, some violence and much profanity
"SLC Punk!," a modestly budgeted, sadly prescient tale of rebellious young misfits, takes us back to what are fast becoming the good old days of blue mohawks, slam pits and hand-to-hand combat. Set in Reagan-era Salt Lake City, this offbeat coming-of-age dramedy has less to do with time or place than with the emotional geography of aggression, anxiety and disaffection – the terrain that separates the men from the boys.

Filmmaker James Merendino has based this paean to punk on his boyhood experiences as a Catholic among Mormons and a persecuted loner amid popular conformists. Though spoofy, often cheerful and finally hopeful in tone, the movie offers insights into antisocial behavior and apocalyptic pop.

Stevo (Matthew Lillard), the affable outsider at the center of Merendino's loosely structured picture, is the son of a Harvard-educated hippie turned attorney. He is doing his best to shock his parents, to little avail. To counter his good grades, he dyes his hair blue, accessorizes with razor blades and moshes to the Ramones (featured on the soundtrack along with classic '80s bands such as the Dead Kennedys, Blondie and the Suicide Machines).

One of a handful of punks in the mecca of abstinence, Stevo gives us a guided tour of Salt Lake City's underbelly. It's not a very fat underbelly – a few skanky clubs, the local head shop, the graffiti-covered dump he shares with his childhood friend, "Heroin" Bob (Michael Goorjian), so named because he's afraid of needles. Stevo and Bob wander through the film as aimlessly as they wander through their miserable young lives.

When they're not drunk, hung over or puking in the bowl, Bob and Stevo are beating up on mods, poseurs and rednecks, making meaningless whoopee or spouting nihilistic gibberish. As time passes, anarchy becomes increasingly hard work for the friends, who finally realize that life without meaning is both hopeless and boring. So, too, are relationships without commitment – a lesson the young men learn from, who else, the movie's young women.

Annabeth Gish, Jennifer Lien and Summer Phoenix have brief but pivotal roles as, respectively, Bob's older girlfriend, a tart libertine and the demure coed who turns Stevo's thoughts to ivy-covered campuses and law degrees. All three actresses make their presences felt.

Lillard, who played the squirrelly Stuart in "Scream," brings a mischievous sense of humor and an easygoing charm to his potentially unsympathetic character. Goorjian, a regular on "Party of Five," is endearingly dazed and confused as Stevo's sidekick and the guiding force in his life.

Typically, movies about misguided punks are so scabrous and their characters so repellent that it's hard to look at them as anything but freak shows – remember "Sid and Nancy"? But Stevo and Bob are appealingly puppyish underneath all that bravura. All the same, this may be the last film that anybody would want to see right about now.

"SLC Punk!" is rated R for sex, nudity, violence, drug use and profanity. Run time: 97 minutes.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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