My Own Private Idaho


My Own Private Idaho (1991) is a drama directed by Gus Van Sant and based on a screen story by Van Sant and additional material suggested by the play Henry IV by William Shakespeare.


The Plot:

Among the young street hustlers in Portland, Oregon, is Mike Walters (River Phoenix), a sweet but ratty young blond who is obsessed with finding his long-vanished mother. He is a prostitute and severe narcoleptic who, during stressful situations, collapses frequently into a narcotic state. This condition often leads to his being picked up by clients while unconscious and then awaking hours later in unfamiliar surroundings.

His best friend, and his opposite, is dark-haired Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), the aristocratic son of Portland’s mayor (Tom Troupe). Unlike the gay Mike, who has a deep crush on Scott, the latter is basically straight. He has sex with men only for money and to get back, so he claims, at his ultra conservative family. His ‘slumming’ is part of his rebellion against his hypercritical, demanding father.


Determined to locate his mother, Mike convinces Scott to join him in an odyssey back to Idaho, and then, following up further clues provided by his alcoholic brother/father (James Russo), on to Rome, Italy. On the road, they encounter a sleazy Continental Salesman, Hans (Udo Kier), who indulges in sex with both teenagers.


In Italy, Scott, anxious to reaffirm his sense of masculinity, becomes deeply attracted to the beautiful Carmella (Chiara Caselli) and breaks with his love-sick friend Mike for her. Back in the States, Scott, now twenty-one, has come into a lucrative inheritance and rigidly abandons his former friends. Meanwhile, much older Bob Pigeon (William Richert), the leader of the street urchins, who had befriended Scott in his fledgling days, dies rejected by Scott, paralleling the death of Scott’s political father. Pathetically lonely Mike is left with his broken illusions.


The style of My Own Private Idaho is pillowy and caressing; it makes you feel as if you were gently hypnotized. The implication here is that the movie is going straight from Mike’s sleepy head into your own. The characters sometimes speak in a kind of Elizabethan style and they have been compared to Prince Hal and Falstaff. Although the central characters are prostitutes, the movie is not really about sex, which does not interest either Mike nor Scott very much. There is no mechanical plot that has to grind to a Hollywood conclusion, and no contrived test for the heroes to pass; this is a movie about two particular young men, and how they pass their lives.

“Van Sant has an arty side, and this time he’s given it full reign.”

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly


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