ANDPOP’s Sarah Khan hopes to expand your film repertoire as she tackles some of the best little known films in the new bi-weekly column, “Blink And You’ll Miss It.” This week, she tells you why Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho is one film you shouldn’t overlook.
What It Is: Gus Van Sant’s very lose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V. Starring the late River Phoenix in a career-cementing performances, the movie tells the saga of Mike (Phoenix), a young narcoleptic street hustler, and his quest to find his mother. He’s accompanied along the way by his best friend Scott (Keanu Reeves), the rebellious son of the mayor or Portland.
Throughout their journey we meet the ragtag group of street kids with whom Mike and Scott associate, their cocky, self-interested leader Pigeon Bob (William Richert) and the bizarre clients who seek out their time.
Why You Probably Missed It: This independent film was almost never made thanks to a lack of funding.
Van Sant penned the script in the ‘70s, but shelved the idea for years before pulling it back down and rewriting it to better portray the lives of street kids. He was prepared to cast actual street kids in the roles and sent out the script to Phoenix and Reeves without hope. Luckily, both actors agreed to do the film, but apparently that wasn’t enough.
Though it was praised by critics, it wasn’t a box office success. The solemn atmosphere of the movie coupled with the artistic yet graphic portrayal of sex and prostitution forced the movie to fall under the radar.
The movie is also quintessentially Gus Van Sant: weird with non-linear flashbacks and a seemingly disjointed sense of story telling (though it can be argued that this is due to Mike suffering from narcolepsy) thus making it one for only the most patient viewers.
Why You Should See It: I myself only discovered this film thanks to a high school crush on River Phoenix and would gleefully watch it when it was on tv late at night. If you need more of a reason to tune in other than staring at the eternally beautiful River Phoenix, then watch it because it is probably his best performance as an actor. Phoenix flawlessly portrays Mike as a vulnerable yet street-wise youth whose history is heartbreaking. In fact, everything Mike goes through the course of the movie is heartbreaking, but miraculously, Phoenix never lets you pity Mike.
Contrary to popular belief, I think Keanu Reeves is a fairly decent actor and I like to cite this movie as an example of his talents. His character, Scott, is defiant, disloyal and unsympathetic which Reeves had never played before (or after, really). He pulls it off well and makes you wonder why he’s got such a bad rap as an actor.
The movie is bizarre and beautiful and, like most of Van Sant’s films, it’s not for everyone. However, unlike a lot of Van Sant’s films which aren’t worth the time, in my humble opinion, this one is an unrecognized and under-rated win.
Watch the trailer for My Own Private Idaho below: