My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Directed by Gus Van Sant


There’s a grimy beauty to My Own Private Idaho.  It depicts a not so savory world of prostitution, street life and troubled kids, but there is a real tenderness between Mike and Scott and the people they surround themselves with.

The first thing the film tells us is the definition of narcolepsy.  Mike (River Phoenix) is narcoleptic, meaning he is prone to sudden attacks of deep sleep.  We meet him in Idaho, wearing a workman’s shirt with the name Bob on it, and then he falls asleep, twitching along the way.  Throughout the film, we are shown glimpses of this endless Idaho landscape.  This is Mike’s home, at least at one time in his life, and he has visions of his mother both from old memories and when he dreams.  She strokes his hair and tells him everything is okay.

When he wakes up, he never knows where he’s going to be.  We start out in Seattle where Mike runs around with Scott (Keanu Reeves) and other young men who prostitute themselves to get by.  There is a certain sardonic detachment these guys express in relation to their work, and the film reflects this.  The first time we see Scott, he and another guy tell Mike that their client isn’t too kinky, she’s actually pretty cool.  Later we see Mike talk to the camera about wanting to be a model, as he stands on the cover of a pornographic magazine.  There are other familiar faces, including Mike’s, on other magazines, and they talk to each other through the magazine rack as if they’re characters in The Brady Bunch:

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Amidst this cynicism, these guys care for each other.  They commiserate together in cafes or Chinese restaurants and recount stories of pain and misery with what seems like genuine affection for their past selves.  They’re soldiers in a way, taking pleasure where they can find it.  In other words, they have to actively look for the joy in their own lives, and when they find it, they celebrate it.  Oftentimes this takes the form of heavy drug usage.

The focus of the film is Mike’s relationship with Scott.  When we first see them together onscreen, it seems as if they don’t know each other.  But then Mike suddenly falls asleep, and Scott is there to take care of him.  He’s always there to take care of him, and Mike loves him for it.

At some point the boys end up in Portland, Oregon, and we’re given a glimpse into Scott’s life.  His father is very wealthy, but he considers Bob, the de facto leader of their street gang, his true father.  Scott tells us that his plan has always been to return to his father and be the son he wants (though it’s not clear if we should believe him).  This way of life is a form of rebellion but one he can leave at any time.  Mike is not so lucky.

Mike decides he wants to find his mother, who he has been visiting in his dreams, so Scott heads out to Idaho with him, happy to get away from their lives for a while, just as he was happy to get away from whatever his life before this life was.  Like the subtle mystery of who Scott’s real father is, it’s not entirely clear who Mike’s father is.  We meet a man who could be a friend or a brother or an uncle to Mike.  This guy tells him how his mother killed his real father, and Mike doesn’t believe him, telling him that he is his father.  We’re not told if this is true or not, but it’s what Mike believes.  Either way, this guy is violent and probably an alcoholic and not the father Mike needs.

This mystery and breakdown of traditional family relationships is a common theme in the film as the boys have to piece together their own families, whether they realize it or not.  Mike and Scott have a conversation about ‘normal,’ along the lines of how Scott had a normal life but left it and Mike never did.  While camping in Idaho one night, Mike tells Scott, almost shamefully, that he’s in love with him.  It’s the only time we see same-sex intimacy involving the boys that isn’t for money.

Eventually they track down Mike’s mother to Rome, Italy.  It’s a bit startling to see these characters suddenly leap from the grunginess of Seattle, Portland and Idaho to a city as romanticized as Rome.  It’s just another way in which this film is both grimy and beautiful.  Rome affects each character differently.  The romantic city makes Scott fall in love with a girl named Carmella (Chiara Caselli), but Mike is left feeling completely empty.

Scott subconsciously embraces the city because it’s in his nature to embrace everything since he doesn’t need anything.  Rome could just be a passing romance just like his time prostituting himself always had an end date.  Mike doesn’t find his mother, and once he loses Scott he seems to realize that finding his mother never mattered.  Scott was the closest thing to family he had.

Mike tries to maintain a grasp on his life back in Portland, doing the same tricks and hanging out with the same people.  One night he and Bob see Scott, with Carmella on his side, dressed to the nines and with his boyish hair slicked back like he works on Wall Street.  Bob, who has always had a tumultuous relationship with Scott, confronts him in the restaurant, and Scott tells him to go away, without ever giving him enough respect to look at him.  That night, or not long after, Bob dies, and others say that Scott’s rejection broke his heart.

There is then a funeral scene for both Bob and Scott’s real father, who died offscreen around the same time.  We get the impression that Scott doesn’t care for his real father, so going to the funeral is nothing more than a formality.  A few hundred feet away, Mike and his fellow soldiers dance and celebrate Bob with much less formality but way more passion.  Scott looks on with a poker face, letting you read into what he may be thinking. The scene is a little on the nose, but affecting nonetheless, particularly after we’ve felt Mike’s pain and his loneliness.  When he dances with his assembled family, it feels authentic but still a little tragic, like the whole thing is just a performance for Scott, and when Scott leaves, the performance simply ends.

In the end, Mike ends up in Idaho, just like at the start of the film.  He falls asleep in the middle of a quiet road, and a car pulls up to rob him.  “America the Beautiful” starts to play quietly under the scene as we expect him to be left utterly alone once more.  But then a car pulls up, a man gets out, and he helps Mike in the car before driving off.  The film ends with the text “have a nice day.”

So the film is about putting together your own family, and there is some optimism in there.  It’s a very Richard Linklater-esque point of view, as he has said (most notably in Waking Life) that your life is your creation.  It’s a work of art, and you’re the artist.  But there is plenty of pessimism in this story as well.  There is a closeness between Mike and Scott, but there’s also a thick line keeping them apart, whether Mike realizes it or not.

Despite how much you let go of what you once were, it still matters where you come from.  Mike is deeply scarred by the instability of his family life.  He doesn’t know his real father, and if he does, well that father lies to him about being his father.  And his mother is always somewhere else.  She might as well not even exist.  In one early scene, Mike sees a woman on the street who resembles the memory of his mother, and she might as well be his mother.  We don’t ever really know who’s the parent, and then if we do, we don’t know who is considered the parent.  By that I mean, we don’t know Mike’s father, but we do know Scott’s father.  In Scott’s case, however, we don’t completely know who he considers his real father.  The idea of a “father,” then, isn’t so concrete.  In many ways it’s a construction, just like all family is a construction of some kind.  You’re merely introduced to your family in different ways, often through blood relation, but sometimes through other life experiences.

Mike knew Scott for about three and a half years, based on their math, and it’s safe to assume Mike had some kind of family bond with the people around him before Scott, and he’ll make another one now that Mike has gone.

At the end of the film, I couldn’t quite tell if we were supposed to be optimistic for Mike, or if the message of the film was much more pessimistic.  There will always be people who can hurt you, but there will always be people who can pick you right back up, it seems.  Still, we don’t completely know who that person in the car was that picks up Mike off the road.  Any other person we’ve seen give him a ride has looked at him for sex, not as any kind of human.

There is an interesting, mysterious character named Hans whom this unknown driver reminded me of.  Hans offered to give Mike a ride early in the film, but Mike dismissed him, calling him a pervert.  Then he fell asleep almost right after, and Scott tells him that Hans was in enough to give them both a ride to Portland from Seattle.  They later run into Hans in Idaho, and they some sort of trade (the details of which escape me at the moment) in which the three of them all have sex, and the two boys are able to make their way to Rome.

Hans doesn’t seem to be a bad guy by any means, but there is a distance between him and the two boys because they make a trade rather than simply help each other out.

Another interesting stylistic choice of the film is that these sex scenes are depicted through a series of shots in which the actors hold completely still for a few seconds.  They’re not photos, just video of the characters in the midst of something wild, yet holding still.  I don’t know exactly what to make of this, but it certainly was impactful.  It’s a moment of action that you expect to be loud, but it’s completely quiet.  It’s like they’re imprisoned in these moments, but the sex scene between Scott and Carmella is shot the same way, but their union feels like its’ supposed to be freeing, not limiting.


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