Nickolas Perry's "Speedway Junky" sounds like a race-car thriller but is actually a tender love story set in the Las Vegas underbelly. Inevitably it recalls "Midnight Cowboy" in some aspects but possesses sufficient individuality and personality to avoid being derivative. It marks an unusually mature feature debut for writer-director Perry, who combines visual grace and nuanced portrayals from an array of carefully chosen actors, including Daryl Hannah, in one of her sharper performances.
Jesse Bradford stars as Johnny, an Army brat who has run away from his home on a California military base to head for Charlotte, N.C., determined to become a member of race car driver Richard Petty's crew, the first step toward becoming a racing champion himself.
He stops in Las Vegas with the idea of earning some quick money to finance the rest of his trip, but in no time he's separated from his last $20 and a pack containing all his possessions. When in desperation he unsuccessfully hits upon a woman in an expensive car for a handout, he is observed by another youth, Eric (Jordan Brower), hanging out in the same nondescript strip mall as Johnny.
There's a big difference in the two young men. For all his gentle demeanor and sensitivity Eric is a seasoned hustler who understands the old Vegas truth that you don't get anything for nothing. Eric offers shelter to Johnny, who he discovers is a young man of stunning naivete. Johnny is willing to hustle, but only women. Eric, who is gay, accepts that Johnny is straight but can't help falling in love with him anyway. As Johnny enters a world of danger and uncertainty, he realizes he can love Eric as the best friend he's ever had, even if he is not sexually attracted to him.
Perry takes us into the world of convenience stores, cheap apartments, deserted parking-structure stairwells and cruising areas that exist in the shadows outside the bright lights of Vegas. Johnny meets Veronica (Hannah), Eric's late mother's friend who's slid from the chorus line to prostitution to the arms of the tough vice cop who arrested her. She and Eric have a mother-son bond, and Hannah is wonderful at conveying Veronica's wisdom, vulnerability and ultimate resilience. Key among Eric's pals is Jonathan Taylor Thomas' Steve, a determined hustler who overestimates his street smarts. Patsy Kensit is a chic prostitute.
With its shifting moods captured beautifully by both Stan Ridgway's poignant score and Steve Adcock's evocative camera work, "Speedway Junky" is a potent mixture of sentiment and grit, and it showcases the talents of its young principals.
Gus Van Sant signed on as one of the film's executive producers, and Perry has come up with a movie worthy of the support of the director of "Mala Noche," "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho."
MPAA rating: R, for violence, pervasive language, sexual content and drug use. Times guidelines: strong adult themes and situations unsuitable for children.
Jesse Bradford: Johnny
Jordan Brower: Eric
Jonathan Taylor Thomas: Steve
Daryl Hannah: Veronica
A Regent Entertainment/Miracle Entertainment presentation of a Rodney Omanoff/Randall Emmett production. Writer-director Nickolas Perry. Producers Rodney Omanoff, Randall Emmett, George Furla, Jeff Rice. Executive producers Gus Van Sant, Tony Cataldo, Cliff Brune. Cinematographer Steve Adcock. Editor Craig A. Colton. Music Stan Ridgway. Production designer Candi Guterres. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
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