Anyone familiar with Larry Clark’s work knows that even at his best, his films are unfocused. He’s often content to let the camera hover around his various casts of disaffected youth rather than zoom in on them, valuing atmosphere over any kind of highly detailed plot. When he’s got the right actors, this loosey goosey style works like gangbusters in terms of world-building — Kids and Bully both feel so icky and cautionary because they feel so real (it also helped that Bully was so faithful to the true-crime novel on which it was based). But when his performers can’t hit the mark, things devolve into an aimless slog.
Marfa Girl unfortunately falls into that latter category, which is a shame since everything in it looks so damn good. Shot on location by cinematographer David Newbert in the small West Texas town of its namesake, the film has an arid, sun-baked feel that’s both depressing and empathetic thanks to the details specific to its geography. Marfa’s teenage residents wait for freight trains to pass on their way to school like most kids would wait for cars; while some juveniles smoking pot in the city would run from the cops, the youth here (all of them Latino) flee from the Border Patrol, even though they’re legal residents.
And while these kids, most of whom were plucked right from real-life Marfa, certainly have an affectingly dazed look about them that blends right into their surroundings, the hard truth is that they can’t act. Hell, neither can most of the adult cast, a motley assortment of hippy dippy parents, teachers with questionable methods of punishment, and border police that range from quietly noble to downright sociopathic.
Using amateurs can often heighten the realism of a gritty place like Marfa — just look at The Wire and Clark’s earlier work — but the actors still need to have a basic understanding of what drives them or, at the very least, be able to speak their lines without pauses so big you could drive a Mack truck through them. With the exception of the sleepy-eyed, skateboarding protagonist Adam (played by Adam Mediano with just the right amount of naivety, teenage lust, and hesitant moral conviction), everyone … in Martha … talks … like … this, making you wonder if Clark’s off-camera feeding them their lines.
Even Drake Burnette’s title character, an artist-in-residence who’s meant to give an awakening jolt to Marfa’s aimless citizens, has this same stilted cadence. This wouldn’t be such a huge issue, except she’s supposed to be the most charismatic person in the movie. This is someone who’s able to tempt conservative border guards into gorging on shrooms and engaging in group sex. This is someone who upsets the community so much that she brings its underlying racial tensions directly to the surface, causing the narrative to explode in a violent yet ultimately cathartic conclusion. Or at least that’s how we’re told to see it. But when Burnette acts and talks like an awkward performance art robot, it’s hard to buy her revolution from an audience standpoint, let alone a character standpoint. Sure, her Marfa Girl looks real. But like the rest of the film, she doesn’t feel real.