Clementine’s review published on Letterboxd:
Heads up y'all, I walked all the way to computer for this review because it's going to be a long one. This film affected me in ways that I absolutely know how to describe, so I'm going to.
If you choose to read this, please read the whole thing and don’t give up in the middle, xoxo management.
Upon completion of this film I read some of the top reviews just to see what other people have said (yanno, as one does now that this app exists), and there is an overwhelming amount of people who felt the need to criticize a film that was clearly not made for them. If the contents of this film made you uncomfortable because most of what happens here feels otherworldly, this film was not made for you. If you chalked this film up to a shock value yuck film, then this film was not made for you.
Right off the bat, the way that this film was brought to my attention was in a Facebook group I'm apart of. Someone made a post asking for recommendations for movies that would make her stomach churn. Of course many people recommended fictional movies such as Braindead by Peter Jackson or Angst which was popularized by modern filmmaker Gaspar Noe. In the sea of fictional stories laid Gummo. A story that for some people may seem stomach churningly fictional, but for people like me, is absolutely non fiction.
For the sake of what I'm about to write I'm going to make y'all aware that I'm going to refer to the town I grew up in & the town where this film takes places as "trash towns". Both literally and figuratively speaking, these towns are trash towns. Not only are they physically disgusting to live in but mentally these towns will turn you & everyone around you into trash. You'll notice heavily in this film that every single person has something in common: they're all white, they're all offensive & they're all painfully in the dark about how the world outside actually functions. This is where the residents of said towns have been aptly named: white trash.
I grew up a closeted queer kid in a white trash town. So below I'd like to point out some of the key themes to this film that really felt like "home" to me, and may seem alien to someone who grew up surrounded by wealth.
Obviously the first thing that anyone will tell you about in this film is to be aware of the animal cruelty that takes place more than once. There is a scene right away in the beginning that shows two brothers in their kitchen just beating the living shit out of each other for seemingly no reason. Later on in the film we are brought to a scene where a group of friends are having an arm wrestling contest that ends in a man being so overcome by the fact that he lost that he destroys his entire kitchen, violently. All of these things would make the average person uncomfortable because this amount of violence is so exceedingly unnecessary. But it's real. The men in my hometown were born & raised in this town, never went to school/never completed high school & were surrounded by the exact same people their entire lives. Habits formulate after you repeat the same activity over and over again, right? So imagine you're a 14 year old boy filled with rage and you inflict violence on the first thing you can find. Sure, you're 14 so people (especially parents who are not really meant to be parents) will excuse it because boys will be boys. Now imagine, you're 30, still filled with rage because the same things that filled you with rage when you were 14 are STILL filling you with rage today because literally nothing around you has changed. All the people are the same & you are the same. Nothing has changed. People don't even excuse you for being a boy anymore, people have just adjusted to the fact that you're a violent person and they will excuse you & sometimes even encourage violence on strictly the familiarity of those personality traits.
Part of what this makes this movie horrifying to an outside eye is the fact that many of the craziness happening in this town is being caused by kids. Solomon is a kid. Bunny boy is a kid. The girl running around with her sisters screaming about how badly she wants to be Burt Reynolds is a kid. The scene that stuck out to me the most was the little kid at the dump dressed like a cowboy who was screaming at Bunny Boy for dressing like a queer. This scene is likely insanely jolting to people who have only ever experienced kids as properly parented human beings. But this kid is real. Kids in trash towns hold onto every offensive thing that gets said around them and will repeat it until their lips bleed because it gets them attention, positive or negative. If there's not anyone around to tell them to stop or to educate them on why it's not appropriate to talk like that, the kids will stay like that. That's how we end up with abusive & violent 30 year olds. Another specific scene that stuck out to me was the girl towards the end who is talking about breast feeding her doll. Kids in trash towns (especially girls) have a very basic understanding of what it means to be an adult. In trash towns, growing up is not encouraged. Leaving town is not encouraged, being your own person is not encouraged. So while it may seem funny to hear a little kid scream profanities or talk about breast feeding her baby doll, it's real, and those kids will NEVER change.
Obviously, the one thing we can all agree on in this film is that there is a severe lack of parenting going on in this town. Which is real. There was a huge boom in the 80s-90s of moms who were NOT ready to be parents (whether by choice or not by choice, which is also a very unfortunate reality of small town parents). Because of the inherent lack of education around parenthood circulating in a small town, "not being ready to be a mom" isn't a big deal or just flat out isn't an option. Children in small towns end up without parents, end up with siblings as parents, end up with friends as parents. So where it may be easy to pin blame on whoever was influencing a troubled child the most, down to its core, the overwhelming sense of nihilism in parenthood that's pungent in trash towns, are truly what is to blame.
One of the most painful parts of watching this film lies in the offensive conversations surrounding minorities. There are painfully uneducated conversations about trans people, gay people and black people. This is real. I was lucky enough to escape my trash town but many of the conversations had in this film about minority groups are conversations I witnessed prior to leaving. It sucks, so much, but it's real. The amount of education about diversity in trash towns is little to none, the only real education about minorities in trash towns is that you're supposed to hate them for no reason other than the fact that they are different from you. When you're compact into a small town where nothing changes and the people are all the same, the concept of being different is actually never brought about. You stay the same, forever. The concept of someone being BORN different & not being able to change that, is foreign, in a bad way.
Logic and reasoning to any person outside of a trash town would say "wow! everyone in this town sucks! you should leave!" But, that's about a million times easier said than done. The main reason for this is because finding the resources that are physically and mentally required to leave a trash town is next to impossible. Even these days where the internet is a thing, the outside world doesn't like trash town natives & trash town natives don't like the outside world. The outside world may as well not even exist. It's not romanticized how awesome life can be if you get a job and find someone to love and settle down with. You stay in the trash town because it's just easier. I can guarantee that no one will encourage you to leave, which lack of encouragement makes it hard to get anything done anyway, but when STAYING and making things easier for yourself and everyone around you is normalized, why would you do anything else? The scene that was profoundly honest to me was the scene where the gay man who's obviously intoxicated in some way shape or form is talking about how painfully alone he feels. That's how it be. Feeling alone in the real world is suffocating. Feeling alone in a trash town is INTENSELY suffocating. However, trying to find the resources to figure out how to get the fuck out of your situation is somehow even MORE suffocating. More often than not, trash towns are full of people who don't want to leave. They don't care enough about their futures or the futures of the children that they will likely end up having to start fresh somewhere else. However, there are people with potential in trash towns. Like me.
There are so many conversations & themes in this film that are painful. They're hard to watch, they're hard to listen to & if you didn't grow up in white trash, everything in this film seems unfathomable. But it's real. Every single thing in this film is real. Still, nearly 24 years later.
2 hours after completion, this film is still sitting like a sympathetic rock in my stomach. After leaving my trash town I felt proud. It felt like a breath of fresh air that was clean from pure toxicity. But, I still can't help but feel connected to a film like this, because of who I am & how I grew up. Is it who I am anymore? No. Am I proud of something like this being apart of my life for so long? Nah. But I will continuously applaud Harmony Korine for being able to invoke such a profoundly honest response inside of me that I didn't even know existed anymore? Absolutely fucking yes.
I've made a damn good life for myself. I'm happily married & have a very nice job, because I made it out. But I won't forget where I came from, not because I want to remember, but because the parts of my childhood & parts of many of the people I grew up with childhoods' that look like this film are simply impossible to forget.
The gut wrenching honesty in how horrendous trash towns are, how disgusting the people who inhabit them are & how seemingly impossible it can be to leave, portrayed in this film is absolutely perfect.
If you had the audacity to review this film with the understanding that your background doesn't look anything the film, then you are inherently the reason why potentially good people trapped in bad surroundings stay trapped. Leaving something familiar (no matter how bad it is) is scary by itself, but leaving something familiar and getting smacked in the face by wealthy opinionated assholes hurts just as fucking much.
I encourage future viewers of this film or any other ~hard to watch~ film for that matter, to consider re-evaluating how much empathy you implore while watching movies. The example I will use for this is a commonly clowned movie, Salo. This movie is profoundly disgusting and VERY difficult to watch. However, because I am not emotionally connected to the events portrayed in this film, I have a hard time being affected by it in any other way other than just "ew". So, I have to step outside of what's familiar. I have to understand that these events are still haunting to this day, even if they don't directly haunt me. Now, apply this to Gummo. Did you grow up in a clean and wealthy household? Is it hard for you to stomach the fact that there is a very real part of society that still looks like this? Yes? Then empathize with those people. Walk for a minute in a part of society that you're not comfortable with to understand why a film like Gummo or Salo had to be made. Instead of just saying, "yuck! what a disgusting film!" And if you really just are wanting to watch movies that are strictly shock value and have no piece of human connection woven into the threads of their creation, I suggest you check out Lars von Trier.
This film is a reminder that films are not meant to slap you in the face with offensive content just for the sake of shock value, but rather that filmmaking is about creating genuine emotion. I genuinely feel connected to this film, even though I don't want to. And that, my friends, is something I will strive to accomplish as a future filmmaker.
Additionally any film that uses a Sleep song in the first 10 minutes (or at all for that matter) is a 10/10 in my book.
If you read this entire thing then you are a fucking champion and I appreciate you. Have a good day y'all, I'm going to go kiss my spouse & remind myself that I'm awesome.