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Movie Review

'Pups': Aura of Authenticity in Edgy Tale of Teen Violence

March 31, 2000|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two days before the Columbine, Colo., massacre last year, "Pups" screened at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival to wide acclaim, but the high school shooting spree derailed the film's distribution a full year. The irony is that "Pups" is a serious film that confronts some of the issues raised by the shootings: the lethal combination of guns and youthful rage in a media-manipulative world. As in his first film, "Bang," the British-born filmmaker known simply as Ash, taps the paranoia and danger that lurk just beneath the surface in everyday life.

Not only is he an acute, wide-ranging observer but he also inspires his actors to attempt the most demanding portrayals yet and make them seem as wholly spontaneous as his edgy, restless films appear. Shot by the resourceful Carlos Arguellp with a Steadicam, "Pups" feels as if it's been shot on the run yet is a most graceful, adroitly paced work. What's more, Ash plays off youthful newcomer Cameron Van Hoy and old pro Burt Reynolds to the advantage of both, who are surrounded by a strong supporting cast.

The film takes place in the perfectly ordinary suburban Chatsworth. Van Hoy's 13-year-old Stevie is bright, dreamy and TV-and-games saturated, like most youngsters. But as we meet him, he's toying with hanging himself when he's interrupted by an asthma attack. In an instant he's off on another tack, playing detective it would seem, and in rooting around his mother's bedroom--she is apparently a single parent--he comes across a handgun.

By the time his girlfriend, Rockie (Mischa Barton), arrives to go off with him to school, Stevie has had a call from his mother saying she won't be home for dinner, which triggers--or revives--an anger within him. You feel he's a latch-key kid, that his mother is often absent from his life. While Rockie is far from thrilled with the idea, Stevie is determined to take the gun with them as they leave for school. As they approach a bank, Stevie--armed and angry, well-primed for the obvious inspiration derived from a zillion movies, TV shows and newscasts--holds the place up.

All of this is staged with a disarming casualness that gives the film a terrifying aura of authenticity that Ash sustains throughout. Rockie as well as Stevie has a momentary "Bonnie and Clyde" sense of exhilaration with this sudden and dramatic rush of empowerment. But Stevie is also plenty scared over what he's gotten into, and the thrill wears off swiftly for Rockie. Steeped in conflicting emotions, Stevie grows increasingly hysterical as he waves his gun at the handful of people he has taken hostage.

They are the varied group you would expect to find there, but none really communicates with Stevie except an embittered young man (Adam Farrar), a Gulf War vet left paraplegic, who asserts that he wouldn't mind Stevie putting him out of his misery.

Consequently, it's really left to Rockie, so engagingly played by Barton, and Reynolds' FBI agent Daniel Bender, whose men have surrounded the bank along with a thicket of onlookers, to try to calm Stevie down. Stevie repeatedly baits Bender, who's too disciplined to let Stevie know how angry and frustrated he is over the standoff.

Ash, who illuminates rather than preaches, carries off "Pups" with aplomb. It's not that Ash raises brand-new issues but that he brings to them a freshness and an emotional impact. We'll be hearing more from him, for sure.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: violence, language, themes and situations handled in responsible fashion.

'Pups'

Cameron Van Hoy: Stevie

Mischa Barton: Rocky

Burt Reynolds: Daniel Bender

Adam Farrar: Wheelchair Man

An Allied Entertainment Group presentation in association with Kazuyoshi Okuyama & Team Okuyama & Fire Heart Films. Writer-producer-director Ash. Producer/production designer Daniel M. Berger. Executive producer Sachie Oyama. Cinematographer Carlos Arguello. Costumes Merrie Lawson. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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