American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
20 years ago, photographer Larry Clark directed “Kids,” an eye-rolling provocation that caused an uproar verging on parody. Critics either clutched their pearls in outrage or hailed the coming of a director unafraid to engage his obsessions, no matter how skeevy and perverted they appeared. In “Kids,” as in all of his subsequent films, Clark’s camera favored rail thin, underage teenagers engaging in all manner of sexual acts, with and without the permission of their partners. He was an equal opportunity lingerer, though he seemed to favor the naked male posterior in motion. In most of Clark’s work, there is this unquenchable need to be “shocking,” even at the expense of destroying potentially good material. For some, this may be titillating; for those of us who have been around the block a few times, it’s tedious at best, almost unwatchable at worst. Teenagers have sex and are mean. The thought and sight of this make some people randy. What else is new?
Outside of 2001’s “Bully,” a film that powerfully used Clark’s obsessions in the service of harrowing truths, his films have a redundancy that no amount of exquisite visual framing can cure. You know exactly what you’re getting when his credit appears onscreen. But with “Marfa Girl,” even Clark seems to be tired of his usual tricks. This is a listless, uninspired piece of work whose most outrageous sexual material—toned down by Clark’s standards—is no match in the offensiveness department for the scene where Marfa Girl (Drake Burnette) verbally dresses down a Mexican border patrol officer from her perch of privilege.
The movie isn’t even about Marfa Girl, an arty twentysomething who shows up whenever convenient to discuss and display her objectification of the film’s oversexed brown people. Most of the time we’re following Adam (Adam Mediano), a half-Mexican teenager as he skateboards, smokes and screws his way through the boredom that infuses his hometown of Marfa, Texas. It’s Adam’s 16th birthday, and one of the gifts bestowed on him is a birthday licks paddling by his hugely pregnant high school teacher. Adam is so skinny that the teacher manages to fit him over her lap despite being 9 months pregnant. I half-expected the teacher to reveal that Adam’s her baby daddy, but “Marfa Girl” has other plans for its protagonist.
Adam’s mother rehabilitates parrots and engages in weird, new-Agey dialogue with other residents of Marfa. With the introduction of this character, “Marfa Girl” gives the sense that it plans to explore the scenario through the eyes of an older generation, but Clark is immediately distracted. A potentially interesting, thoroughly weird scene between Adam’s mother and two friends about hippie spirituality, Mexican witch doctors and a frozen dead parrot (I’m not kidding) is suddenly interrupted by Marfa Girl, who basically says to the sole male participant “hey, how’d ya like to come to my house and get butt nekkid?” The movie follows them. Sue me, but I wanted to hear more about the parrot popsicle; at least I’ve never seen that in a movie before.