DIRECTED BY: James Merendino

FEATURING: , Michael A. Goorjian, Annabeth Gish

PLOT: Young rebels grow up in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA—a location not very conductive to rebellion.

Still from SLC Punk (1998)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: One-and-a-half acid trip sequences do not a weird film make, especially when they’re just played for a quick laugh. SLC Punk is in fact a pretty wholesome teenage rumination which happens to be set against the background of the 1980s; in this modern day, it plays like Disney trying to make its own Trainspotting.

COMMENTS: Punk, especially ’80s punk, is a genre defined largely by arguments about its own definition, and SLC Punk spends a lot of time on the debate itself. At the end of the day, we have to give up trying to pin down the genre nobody can agree on and just move on, waving our hands at “that thing over there,” whatever you call it. Punk is Tao; to define it is to grip the air. And we all know the Billie Joe Armstrong quote, thanks.

With that out of the way, you will search far and wide for a comparably mature and realistic snapshot of punk rock culture, the Reaganomics ’80s, or Salt Lake City, for that matter. Stevo (Matthew Lillard) carries us through from start to finish, telling us of his life and coming of age. Along the way, we get some philosophizing about what it means to be a non-conformist, and how to harmonize your nonconformity with the world around you. Stevo’s cast of friends are characters in a punk-culture parable: some come to good ends, some to bad, and some just cruise along.

Not only does Stevo narrate, but he erases the fourth wall and takes us on live guided tours around his life, introducing us to his friends at a party as if we, the audience, were attending. Further segments become mini-documentaries, tackling the rivalry between punk and other cultures, the dichotomy of “posers” within the culture, U.S. vs. U.K. punks, what it’s like to score drugs or even decent alcohol in Utah, and other video-blog topics. We meet Stevo’s chum “Heroin” Bob (Michael A. Goorjian), his dad (Christopher McDonald) who doesn’t quite see eye to eye with his son but manages to have an amicable relationship anyway, his girlfriend Trish (Annabeth Gish), and his drug connection and part-time psycho Mark (Til Schweiger). There’s no real plot to be found here, just a series of interrelated vignettes in the day-to-day lives of these characters.

SLC Punk is a much-cherished cult classic which looks amazing for its six-figure budget. Its soundtrack is one of the greatest punk albums you will ever own; this is the music punks actually listened to in the ‘80s, as opposed to the music we think they listened to. While the movie puts the dyed mohawks and party hi-jinks up front, at its core it’s a thoughtful documentary masquerading as a fictional dramedy, one that wears its heart on its sleeve. It even winds up on a positive note, miraculously pulling through the nihilism to come to some upbeat conclusions, even though not everybody pulls through. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be left with a story that transcends a punk culture exposé and resonates with any youth scene in any state during any decade. All of us, goths, mods, emos, slackers, hippies, yuppies, and hipsters, are all our own brand of punk… and in the end, we are all posers to somebody.


“…an absurdist coming-of-age comedy… likable for its outlandishness, less so when it shows a self-important streak. For all of Merendino’s jump-cutting affectations and other flashes of attitude, it’s finally as mainstream as its hero turns out to be.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: SLC PUNK (1998)”

  1. @Giles: My goodness, they’re Scots? Didn’t know.

    (I’m kidding.)

    That has nothing to do with it. I’d think people would recommend it for the “worst toilet in Scotland” scene alone.

    That’s before you consider the near-overdose sequence filmed from the POV of lying in a carpeted grave; the hilariously flipped-out withdrawal sequence with hallucinations including a Gilliamesque TV game show parody; Spud’s accidental sheet incident that bathes an entire family in shit just when they’re sitting down to breakfast; the utterly deranged cast of characters introduced by drop-dead lines like “Begley didn’t do drugs, he just did people”; Sick Boy’s James Bond obsession echoing Cage’s Elvis obsession in Wild At Heart (not to mention having a character named “Sick Boy”).

    Then after you get through all THAT; you still have the baby scenes. Dear God, the baby scenes! Second-creepiest baby character in a movie right after Eraserhead. I’m a hardened horror veteran and the baby on the ceiling spinning his head around before falling into the camera POV is still hard to watch.

    Meanwhile the plot careens all over the place like an out-of-control lorry, managing to put a happy – nay, even spiritual – ending to a movie about heroin addicts filled with death and despair.

    I’d guess that the only reason Trainspotting hasn’t been considered before here is because it was too successful. It is, indeed, buried in well-deserved accolades, but is still just niche enough that we can’t accuse it of being “mainstream.”

    Aw, you sly dog, you got me ramblin’ and now this is a whole review already!

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