Indie Spotlight: Gummo (1997)

Film editor Joe Holloran looks back on one of the most unsettling films of the 1990s

Joe Holloran
8th December 2019
Some film stay with you long after you first watch it. Others, because they are wonderfully written or directed. It might be because of a particular performance that stirs up some deep emotions. And then there are those rare movies who are none of those things, yet burrow their way into your brain because they are simply like nothing you have ever seen before. For me, the first film to achieve this was the 1997 indie cult classic Gummo.
Director Harmony Korine had previously writen the screenplay for the controversial 1995 indie classic Kids. Image:IMDB

The directorial debut from future Spring Breakers (2012) creator Harmony Korine, Gummo's plot (in as much as it has one) takes place in 1975 and focuses on the under-class inhabitants of a small Midwestern town called Xenia, Ohio as they attempt to go about their lives in the aftermath of a (real life) devastating tornado. Our main protagonist is a teenage boy called Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) who, with his best friend Tummler (Nick Sutton), pass the time wandering around the broken town finding new and increasingly destructive ways to break the spell of boredom. The film repeatedly cuts away from the two boys, and instead provides little insights into the lives of some of the town's other bizarre inhabitants. And that is about it.

I know that little description is hardly one that will entice many of you to seek Gummo out, but trust me, the films loose narrative is not important. What makes this film so wonderful yet, bleak and unsetteling, is how it looks and the short burst of esoteric, nihilistic dialogue.

The films iconic poster showing Solomon in profile. Image:IMDB

Although the look of the film owes much to the aesthetic style of cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, make no mistake, Gummo is Korine's baby. He not only directed the film but also wrote it and it comes across. A film this compelling and odd yet that somehow works as a coherent piece of art can only be the result of one man having a clear idea in his head of the world he wants to create and then taking complete control over its production. Korine sees the experience of American youth in a way entirely his own and this makes him one of the most important screenwriters in the comeing-of-age genre.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Harmony Korine was the king of gritty, nihilistic and funny coming of age movies. Because of the sex, drugs and violence in his movies, some have called his films 'teensploitation' a term that to me is nonsence. Teenagers like those in his films exist and their stories are worth telling because they are the forgotten products of a broken society.

Of Korine's three key films as a writer (Kids (1995) ,Gummo & Ken Park (2002)) Kids is undoubtedly his finest moment. Gummo, however, is the only film of the three that allowed Korine to take the damaged young characters he creates so well and place them in a world that reflects on the outside what lies within their minds.

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