Do the hustle

Johns: Scott Silver (18)
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"Johns", as the term is used by prostitutes, normally refers to their clients, but in Scott Silver's johns, which has won a couple of prizes at film festivals, the hustlers refer to their clients as "dates" - an incongruously dated and tentative word. The "Johns" of the title are John the anti-hero, played by David Arquette, and the various people called John he runs into on the day the story is set.

Silver's script incorporates the stories of real hustlers, but tries to present a shaped drama. John wakes up, in the park where he has spent the night, to find that someone has stolen his "lucky sneakers". The money John was saving was inside them.

The storyline is simple. It's Hollywood, it's Christmas Eve, and tomorrow is John's birthday. This is a sort of three-part recipe for pathos: Hollywood stands for hollow dreams, which, to be sure, John has plenty of. Christmas allows the director to put lots of carols on the soundtrack, sounds of sacred belonging, and has the advantage of visual strangeness in the Californian absence of winter. Christmas day will be John's 21st birthday, a suitably ironic coming-of-age. He has been saving up for a special night at the Park Plaza Hotel, a little bit of heaven on earth - champagne, burgers, cable - though as part of this laudable enterprise he has cheated some drug dealers, which turns out to be a mistake.

John is heterosexual, though his relationship with Nikki (Alanna Ubach) seems less than supportive, since she is forever leaping out of cars and screaming at him for not having any time to spend with her. His closest contact is Donner (Lukas Haas), an apprentice hustler whom John has given a few rudimentary lessons in street smarts, to avoid entrapment - always ask a date if he's in any way affiliated with the police, make sure he touches you before you touch him.

David Arquette does a good job of conveying John's desperation, but Lukas Haas, with his crooked smile and his sweetness, is the more interesting screen presence, and perhaps the more interesting character, the waif with protective instincts. It's made pretty clear that Donner is in love with John, but there is also ambiguity about his actions. At a time when he has claimed to be broke, but to be doing all he can to help John afford his birthday present to himself, we see Donner fingering a fair-sized sheath of money. We don't even know the reasons for John's sleeping rough. Why doesn't Donner offer him floor space.

The world of johns isn't altogether bleak, but the moments of kindness we see occur as far as the film can make them from commercialised sex. A black panhandler who John has resisted, before finally giving him a hamburger remnant, repays this grudging favour with help freely given (he's another John). The receptionist at the Park Plaza treats John with courtesy, and plays along with John's feeble pretence of being an actor researching his part in an upcoming movie, living in character. It's nice that the receptionist should return the deposit when John can't come up with the full amount, but still it's a problem with the film that the sexual people aren't nice and the nice people aren't sexual. This is not only an unpromising perspective from the film-maker, but makes it too easy for viewers to keep a virtuous distance.

If you give your hero a 25 December birthday, you allow for the possibility that he is some sort of sacrificial innocent. John is no Christ figure, though, and the film doesn't push this angle, though one of the hustler's favourite places to wait for a date is a large and gaudy mural of the Ten Commandments. But then, at the end of the film, Homeless John, the panhandler, sings a Negro spiritual, no less, about no one recognising the baby Jesus, so the point must remain moot.

johns occupies the middle ground between the confrontational dramatised documentary best represented by Larry Clarke's Kids, and the more poetic, high-art-from-low-life approach of, say, Gus van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. The script is just structured enough to seem contrived, when people bump into each other for plot purposes in a city of 490-square miles, or make their way spontaneously to the right room in a motel to make a ghastly discovery.

Scott Silver may have researched the way hustlers live, but he is also keen to show up his own intelligence by making his characters stupid. John uses words he isn't sure of, like deposition for disposition, in a forlorn attempt to impress. The drug dealers who are looking for him are even dumber: when they're repaid $120 of a $300 debt, their calculating skills are too dismal to allow them to work out what is still owed.

If this is satire, it's in the wrong place. Even Donner is made out to be pretty dumb, asking wholly inappropriate people (slumming tourists who want a photo, a decrepit old man who wants to spank him) if they are affiliated to the LAPD. He tries to persuade John that they should take jobs as lifeguards in a Missouri theme park where his parents have influence. They'll be the best lifeguards Camelot ever had - just as soon as they learn to swim.

johns is a warning about what can happen if a film-maker doesn't think through his good intentions. When a gap opens up between the characters in a film and an audience, then the audience is as likely to fill it with contempt as with sympathy

'johns' opens tomorrow