Finding your identity in popular music is an activity you grow out of, rather than grow old with. Filmmaker James Merendino knows it all too well; his "SLC Punk!" is a keenly observed, flawlessly remembered rite-of-passage flick that shows how the second-generation Johnny Rottens of the mid-1980s maintained their tenuous grasp on rebellion until the dreaded "reality" set in. But when the film is over, the question remains: Is it really an era worth pining for in the first place?
Unclouded by nostalgia, Merendino takes us back to the halcyon days of 1985, in the process trotting out the once-familiar character types now forced to dwell on the outer fringes of our memories. There's the bespectacled nerd-boy with the shockingly unexpected propensity for brutish violence. There's the mod who's as likely to buy dope from punks as he is to go for their throats during turf wars. There's the Greek chorus of eye-blackened Siouxsie-alikes whose mouths emit profundities and profanities in the same breath. And most of all, there's Stevo (Matthew Lillard), the passionate but too-smart-for-his-own-good New Waver who fights an ultimately losing battle to maintain his anarchist ideals while a life of respectability knocks ever louder at his door.
Merendino stacks the deck in favor of these lovable hooligans by setting the action in Salt Lake City, where their unfocused rages can be placed into humorous relief against a conservative environment that's equally hysterical in its adherence to tribal custom. Left to their own devices, the kids are less entertaining. Stevo in particular is an unsatisfactory central figure; for all his outrageous antics, he displays none of the undercurrent of genuine danger that gives every great punk his personal magnetism. Lillard was more effective in the recent She's All That, wherein he pulled off a wicked parody of Puck, the star of MTV's "The Real World" -- himself a hand-me-down Idol with more attitude than allure.
Despite his pinpoint memory, Merendino's directorial strategy is less than wise. He renders each scene in a brightly colored, high-resolution style that's totally at odds with the street-credible grittiness the subject demands. Scenes of mob mayhem are regularly frozen into a state of suspended animation as Lillard's voice-over narration ponders the futility of it all -- a tactic that merely proves the director has seen "Goodfellas" as many times as the rest of us.
Still, "SLC Punk!" isn't as wrongheaded as it is unnecessary. The punk age was the first to be comprehensively documented on film and video, leaving a library of moshing manifestos that are far more illustrative than any late-arriving dramatization. If you really want to re-experience the carefree frenzy of your blank-generation youth, rent "The Decline of Western Civilization" one more time instead of throwing down seven bucks' worth of your grown-up paycheck for Merendino's astute but disposable vision.