Ken Park (2002)
By: Joe Lewis on February 3, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Legend Home Entertainment (Germany). All Regions, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). German DD 5.1, English DD 5.1. English, German Subtitles. 96 minutes
The Movie
Directors: Larry Clark, Edward Lachman
Starring: James Bullard, Maeve Quinlan, Steven Jasso, Wade Williams, Amanda Plummer
Screenplay: Harmony Korine
Country: USA
Ken Park is a picture few Australian film connoisseurs can forget, as it was the subject of one of the most potent displays of totalitarian censorship in Australia's history. With the Office of Film and Literature Classification banning the film because it simply showed too much (more on that later), Ken Park went down in the annals of Australian censorship history, earning it a notoriety that no amount of nudity and sex on promotional posters could buy. An appeal by the distributors to have the film classified was overturned, prominent Australian film critic Margaret Pomeranz narrowly avoided being charged for attempting to publicly screen the picture, and Australian censorship watchdog cite at least one Customs confiscation of a DVD.

Thus, it begs the question: What is all the fuss about? Not a great deal, as it turns out – though it may be one of the most masterful pictures tackling serious teen issues yet.

The film begins, and lends its title to, something of a red herring, or a Hitchcockian MacGuffin – a young freckle-faced teen skateboards down to a ramp bustling with other youths. He goes to the top among a group of skaters, sets up a digital video recorder, removes a pistol from his backpack and, flashing a haunting smile at the viewer, blows his brains out. Our narrator Shawn (Bullard) explains to us that the kid's name was Ken Park and guilt about Ken's suicide boiled up in him due to the fact that he would tease the boy about the inverse of his name – Krap Nek.

We're then introduced to Shawn in earnest, his utter confusion exemplified when we see him go down on his girlfriend's mother Rhonda (Quinlan), an act that Shawn commits in vague spite of Rhonda's husband, a somewhat awkward breadwinner, and her daughter Hannah. It's a grotesque scene presented with alarming nonchalance – 'Can I eat you out?'. Rhonda's reply: 'Not now'. We then move onto the life of Claude (Jasso), a friend of Shawn and a skeg to the umpteenth degree. Claude lives with his parents – his father, played brilliantly by Wade Williams, epitomises insecurity and is a child molester, feeling up his boy while he sleeps after being blue-balled by his wife and the hookers he subsequently made attempts to pick up. Claude's mother (Plummer) is pregnant with her husband's child, though her relationship with Claude can also be considered questionable.

Next, we are invited to peek behind the curtains of Peaches' (Tiffany Limos) residence. Peaches lives with her stringently religious father (her mother is dead) and obeys his overbearing house laws, though she doesn't hesitate to have threesomes or play bondage games with the boys her father doesn't know about. Finally, we are introduced to Tate (James Ransone), by far the darkest of the four central characters. Tate lives with his grandparents and is a sexual deviant and utter sociopath. Tate produces the most disgusting and jaw-dropping moments of Ken Park, and the payoff to his section of the film is (intentionally) unsatisfying. Directors Clark and Lachman intertwine the lives of these four youths, who are acquaintances and friends, weaving a claustrophobic web of danger, violence and, more crucially, a loss of innocence. The film concludes with Ken once more, a clear example as to how a difficult and unrewarding life can end in the worst possible way.

A review of Ken Park cannot be complete without directly addressing the controversy as it takes place in the narrative. To call the film pornographic is not so much a generalisation as totally incorrect – one unsimulated scene of sexuality runs for approximately twenty seconds, with the remainder of sexual activity entirely fake. What did piss the OFLC off so much, according to their media release, was the fact that within the narrative the youths were all under eighteen, making their actions as they happen in the film illegal (a twisted logic which then must surely be applied to every picture in which a murder, robbery or assault takes place). The scenes were by no means paedophiliac and at the time of filming each actor taking part in what was deemed by the OFLC to be questionable was over eighteen years of age, thus making this argument null-and-void. Surely the real reason was the fact that Ken Park was subversive in its shameless tackling of topical teen issues – suicide, pregnancy, sex, drugs, inappropriate relationships, religion et al. Clark is certainly no stranger to pictures such as these, having helmed Kids, Bully and Teenage Caveman, with varying critical success. Lachman was a newcomer to the directorial scene though, and was only responsible for the execution of two documentaries and a television show prior to Ken Park. However, Lachman has earned an enormous amount of credibility in the world of cinema for his efforts as a cinematographer – his work on Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven was Oscar-nominated, and he accompanied Clark behind the camera for Ken Park. And while Clark's comment in one of the disc's included interviews that the film looked '$20 million worth' (it was made for 1.3) may sound narcissistic, he has a point. The picture looks great, no doubt a fact helped by Lachman's prominent history as a director of photography. The acting is also worthy of merit, but especially from the lesser roles – Tate and his grandparents, Claude's father and Rhonda all put in riveting turns. The weak link of the troupe, both talent-wise and in the actual narrative, is Peaches – it's of little surprise that Limos debuted with Ken Park, with no acting experience preceding the film whatsoever. Her inexperience shows, and the film suffers for it.

Those who have seen Clark's past pictures know what they're in for – commentary on some of the dire situations that youths find themselves faced with – albeit the absolute most dire. Clark and Lachman don't necessarily seem interested in depicting anything other than the bleak for the most part, which has led to accusations that the duo were creating a work of exploitation. It's difficult to lump Ken Park in this camp because, unlike other films of that genre, it's evident that the filmmakers are legitimately trying to address certain issues and provide some insight into the psychology behind them. Clark and Lachman have generally succeeded in portraying this, but the picture adopts a Days of our Lives-with-erections feel more than once – which isn't a good thing no matter how you look at it. The overall intelligence of Harmony Korine's script, however, buoys Ken Park above (or, rather, below) the rippling levels of over-the-top, and Clark and Lachman show considerable flair in their direction. An immensely intense ride.
Ken Park is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement. The picture is reasonably good, with a few periods where the colours are muted.
German and English audio tracks in Dolby 5.1 have been included. The sound is crisp and clear throughout.
Extra Features
This disc is the fifth in a 'Cinema Controversies' series released by the German DVD production company Legend Home Entertainment. Five interviews are included – one with Lachman and two with Clark and Limos, as well as the original US theatrical trailer. A booklet is also included and contains screenshots and a nineteen-page essay on the picture, with German text. English and German subtitles are also included.
The Verdict
At its core, Ken Park is a series of caricatures – all four youths that are the main focus of the film are heavily damaged goods – be it Shawn fucking Rhonda, Claude's relationship with his father, Peaches' relationship with her father and Tate's sheer psychopathy. It's all very melodramatic, very unrealistic; but it's clear what message Clark and Lachman are attempting to portray. And as the film culminates in its mellow (insofar as a Clark film can be) finale, it leaves hope to the most degenerate viewer – your life can't be more fucked up than this, and there's some light at the end of the tunnel. Many of the actors turn in some powerhouse performances, and Clark's own assured statement of the film's aesthetic worth isn't far off the money. Sure it's flawed, and the controversy that has dogged it is decidedly unwarranted, but Ken Park remains one of the best examples of its ilk ever filmed.
Movie Score
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