Gummo is an imperfect curio, an interesting failure. Harmony Korine’s directorial debut attempts to convey a sense of hollow malaise in a poverty-stricken town while conjuring bizarre imagery that’s disturbing or fascinating – often both. There are frequent demonstrations of Korine’s abundant ability: it’s not hard to draw a line between a scrawny adolescent lifting weights to “Like a Prayer” here to the exquisite Spring Breakers Britney Spears montage. The man has an undeniable talent for crafting moments that are simultaneously banal, captivating and disturbing; I found myself cringing at a girl shaved her eyebrows without fully understanding why.
The film is indecisive, torn between slice-of-life pictures of sub-poverty America and an otherworldly tone, as in the aforementioned weightlifting scene or any moment featuring “Bunny Boy,” an inscrutable bunny-ear-wearing teenager who wanders the town aimlessly. The two halves don’t play nicely. The setting lends the weirdness an odd power, but conversely the weirdness undercuts the small-town setting: realism is sacrificed, making it difficult to see the characters as anything other than actors in a movie. Lacking any real narrative, Gummo needs a believable setting. Without one, it comes across as a series of transfixing moments that never coalesce into anything greater.