The story behind Larry Clark’s slept-on cult hit

The cast from Clark’s languid, sexual drama tell us why Marfa Girl is one of his most provocative films

The village of Marfa, Texas carries the two-pronged distinction of providing a part-time hotbed of artistic activity for a privileged few and a chronic case of inertia for most. This small-town desolation and cultural confusion is palpable in Larry Clark's Marfa Girl, a 2012 film now re-released to both theatres and VOD. A single freight train rolls through town, marking the passing of another day. The evening’s main entertainment will be the usual: a couple of teens fooling around on a Kaoss Pad in a beer-littered basement. Through his signature let-shit-happen directorial approach, Clark documents the intertwined, semi-fictional lives of geographically frustrated locals, border patrol cops and art wanderers alike as they collide in unpredictable – or sometimes painfully inevitable – ways. 

At the film’s core is 16-year-old Adam (played by Adam Mediano), a likable skater kid whose last shred of innocence attracts the curiosity and corruption of just about every older, more jaded character in the neighbourhood. That febrile mix includes violently disordered border patrol agent, Tom (portrayed by Jeremy St James) and neighbour Donna (Indigo Rael), a young mother-turned-aspiring stripper desperate to raise cash and feel connection. “It’s the idea of being needed and necessary and having an influence on somebody,” Rael says, pointing out that “in certain cultures in certain points of history, women would teach young men to make love.”

Then there’s the eponymous Marfa Girl (model Drake Burnette in her acting debut), who sweeps into town on an arts residency and acts as a psychosexual catalyst in the local lives she touches – or really, imposes herself upon. “Larry wanted (Marfa Girl) to personify all these feminist ideas,” says Burnette of her character’s origins. “For me, she just seems very naive and kind of privileged and excited about living in Marfa, Texas. That was a character I was familiar with – I’ve encountered a lot of those.” She says she finds Marfa Girl’s lack of proper name appropriate; she is more an ideal than fully formed being.

In the key scene above, she discusses her favourite sexual practices with an underage Adam while he bathes in the barren house they share. Even for the skewed norms of a Clark film, this is provocative. But does the age difference between the teen and Marfa Girl automatically cross a line? “She has good intentions,” Burnette insists. “But she’s also clearly a person who has no concept of boundaries.”

Marfa Girl’s lack of social grace also creates the film’s most vexingly naive dialogues on racial and class struggle – moments of unchecked privilege that underline the real social strain between locals and visiting dilettantes. However, according to Rael, Marfa residents are actually too overworked to notice the comings and goings of the trendy interlopers much. “They’re too busy to be tense,” she says. “You see people working at the grocery store, then you see the same people working at one of the only restaurants in town in the evening. The real tension is boredom.”

“It made me think about myself growing up – and there were a lot of similarities, mental and physical abuse. I threw the content out the window” – Jeremy St James

Scarier is the schism that exists between lurking border patrol agents and unlucky teens out after dark. This troubling dynamic repeatedly plays out in the complex relationship between Adam and Tom and culminates cruelly in Marfa Girl’s can’t-take-it-back moment, one that will divide audiences and must have been hell to film. But in general, the film’s actors all agree they feel empathy for their characters, as difficult as they are. For St James, the challenge of playing Tom came down to stripping back the content of his role to sheer emotion.

“It took me four hours to get through it,” he says of the script. “It made me think about myself growing up – and there were a lot of similarities, mental and physical abuse. I threw the content out the window. I focused on the emotions. It’s not a movie, it’s an artistic film with the real emotions and feelings of a real person, played by real people. So I wanted to do it justice: I was trying to be a father to a boy. I do have a son, so I was thinking of that. How Tom processes compassion is entirely different and he expresses it in a very different way.”

The film’s ending is a murky question mark, with enough left unresolved to pave the way for Marfa Girl 2, which has already been filmed. Most of the original cast will return. While some may find hope where things leave off, Rael does not. “It’s a warning,” she says. Burnette agrees, ominously teasing, “Let’s just say the cleansing did not work.”

Marfa Girlreleased by Breaking Glass Pictures, is in select theatres and out on VOD now