"I can't think of one thing here that's old fashioned."—Andrew, a paperboy
In the town of Stillwater, Minnesota, kids are pretty much like kids are everywhere else. Brandon keeps his hair cropped short and wears a Brett Favre jersey. He likes his Nintendo and listens to gangsta rap. He also delivers papers every morning to his neighbors.
Mike Mills, best known for his music videos for artists like Moby, occasionally turns his camera to the service of short documentaries. Paperboys clocks in at 41 minutes, during which Mills profiles half a dozen Stillwater paperboys. He lets our eyes wander, skimming the little details of their lives. On the one hand, boys like Brandon and Andrew seem like children out of Spielberg or Capra movies, preserving the rituals of 20th century suburban life. They wake up studiously each morning to earn their pay, which they often save. In another time, they would all head out with their scout troops on weekends. In today's age, they play football and video games.
Mills seems fascinated by what he sees as a contradiction between the work ethic of these boys and the morally questionable games and music they like, where violence and get-rich-quick messages are prevalent. But for these kids, there is no problem here at all. They know about drugs and crime. They see other kids in trouble and do not follow suit. Perhaps he just finds it surprising that there are still good kids in the world or suburbs like Stillwater that have not fallen into apocalyptic squalor.
The result is that Mills has created an interesting series of little portraits, but the point is made quickly. Each boy is pretty similar to the others, and it gets difficult to tell them apart. One likes wrestling and Ronald Reagan. His family says grace and eats crock-pot dinners. Another collects model cars and watches The Godfather. But they are not throwbacks, nor are they naïve creatures out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Paperboys is interesting enough, but lacks enough texture to warrant its solo debut on DVD. Maybe if this short came as part of Palm's "Director's Series," coupling music videos and other short films, then we could compare Mills' work here with other material. At least some sort of essay or commentary track would be in order. The only extra included on this disc is another Mills documentary, "Deformer." At 17 minutes, this is a tightly edited 1997 profile of Huntington Beach, California, artist and skateboard guru Ed Templeton and his world. The kinetic pace and stream-of-consciousness narration is inventive and captures the anarchic nature of skatepunk culture without resorting to the usual clichés. In many ways, "Deformer" is more interesting than Paperboys. Together, these two short films might make an interesting portrait of American youth at the end of the 20th century. Perhaps Mills should consider developing these little pieces into some larger, more ambitious project.
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