A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this arty and heartfelt film about street hustlers contains frequent references to and sometimes scenes of gay male prostitution, though genitals are never on screen (aside from a few brief shots of naked female breasts). The hustlers in the film use drugs (cocaine) and alcohol frequently, and they also steal and lie to each other. There is frequent cursing throughout ("f--k").
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What's the story?
Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves) are two street hustlers in Portland who struggle through life on the streets, selling their bodies, partying, and fighting their personal demons. While Scott's decision to be a hustler is a rebellious act against his wealthy and powerful father, Mike's is more of a desperate attempt at survival. He dreams constantly of his long-lost mother. When Mike and Scott go traveling in an attempt to find Mike's mother, they meet up with Mike's abusive father and then end up in Italy following his mother's trail. There Scott falls in love with a woman, leaving Mike alone and deeply saddened at the loss of his friend and intimate.
Is it any good?
Both River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves carry strong performances in this unusual and poignant film. Though Reeves sometimes struggles to immerse himself fully into the character, his screen presence is riveting. Phoenix, on the other hand, is completely enveloped by his character, creating scenes of deep emotion and tenderness. His performance underscores the tragedy of his later death. The portrayal of the street hustling scene is fascinating to outsiders -- showing both the sadness and danger inherent in the life, as well as touching on the freedom experienced by those who have given up traditional life. Still, this is heavy stuff for most teens, so parents might want to prepare for some follow-up discussion.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what drives the different characters to lead lives of hustling. How are Mike and Scott's reasons similar and different? What do you think about their definitions of sexuality -- are the hustlers gay, straight, or something else?
Talk about how the film portrays life on the street. Are there parts of the lifestyle that seem fun or romantic? How close to reality does the film portray life on the streets? What isn't shown?
- In theaters: September 21, 1991
- On DVD or streaming: March 1, 2005
- Cast: James Russo, Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix
- Director: Gus Van Sant
- Studio: Criterion Collection
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 104 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: violence, nudity, strong sexual content, profanity.
- Last updated: March 14, 2020
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