My Own Private Idaho – 1991 – dir. Gus Van Sant

When this film was first recommended to me three years ago, all I knew was that it was a Gus Van Sant film about a group of gay street hustlers that starred River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. It piqued my interest, mostly because I’d never seen either actor in such a role before.

The basic plot of the film centers on Mike (Phoenix) and Scott (Reeves); whose storyline was derived directly from Shakespeare. Scott thrives on rebellion; choosing to live on the streets to defy not only his rich father, the mayor, but also his wealthy background.  Mike is a vulnerable, sullen, quiet character who’s in love with Scott. Together, both characters go on a search for Mike’s mother.

On the surface, this could be a film about several different topics: street life, homelessness, hustling, drugs and unrequited love. But, what struck me most about the film is the feeling that the characters were all simply just lost.  “Metaphorically, [own private Idaho] refers to someone who is not paying attention because he is daydreaming, or under the influence, or otherwise wrapped up within his own very narrow sphere of interest or frame of reference.”  This latter part of this definition from The Urban Dictionary really struck me because it speaks to the idea that each character in My Own Private Idaho is lost; lost in their own existences, in their fantasies, in their addictions and in their own truths.

Scott is wrapped up in what he believes is the ultimate rebellion: to leave his life of privilege behind and exist on the street; only selling his body if he needed cash.  He isn’t interested in the hustling nearly as much as the rush and thrill of rebellion.  He knows he will end it; leave behind all he pretends to care about, those who have come to depend on him. He knows that one day he will go back to his own life—and he does, complete with an Italian bride, his father’s inheritance and political aspirations of his own.  But, he cannot be happy.  He is still lost in the idea and feelings of being unshackled from his life; the yearning to again roam free, to Bob (William Richert):  “When I was young, and you were my street tutor…I was planning a change.  There was a time when I had the need to learn from you… And although I love more dearly than my dead father, I have to turn away.  Now that I have, and until I change back, don’t come near me.”

Scott is lost in between two worlds:  the one he turns away from and the one he turns towards.  Question is:  which one is it; which one of these worlds does he truly wish to belong to?  He’s too wrapped up in his own “frame of reference” to realize that he is more attached to his life of pretense and rebellion than he believes himself to be.

On the other hand, Mike’s “sphere of interest” is lost within the reality of his existence and his desire to chase something that just is not there. Here’s his reality:  he’s a gay man who’s in love with a straight man; he passes out at the first sign of any kind of stress; he was abandoned by his mother and lied to by his brother; he sells his body for money in order to survive.  He has no plan besides: “I’ll fall back when Scott inherits his money.”  He’s a lost soul desperately trying, not only to find his mother, but also to find himself.  The character of Mike gives us a very clear window into the life of a street hustler and tells their story with a hauntingly melancholy tone. The pain Mike feels is almost tangible and affects his “narrow sphere” to the point that when it becomes his only focus, he loses consciousness.

This is also a character lost in the fantasy of being loved; which is something he’s never actually experienced. He has images of his mother fondly stroking his hair and assuring him that things will be alright; his childhood memories cloud his mind, “My mother’s house was blue. No, it was green. It was green. How could I forget that?” He searches for love in every “date” he goes on, and he allows himself to fall in love with Scott; who, in the end, leaves him in Italy and then drives past in a limo while Mike is passed out on the sidewalk. All of this desire for love manifests itself most in the search for Mike’s mother; who always seems to be just out of reach and is never found.

She is a metaphor for love, but it’s also true that she represents what Mike perceives as good in his own “narrow sphere”?  His own private Idaho slapped him hard in the face and forced Mike to see things as they really are. Most of the characters face this same reality check: all is never what it seems. It’s most evident in the scene referenced above when Scott tells Bob to leave him alone; as well as in the scene where Mike is back from Italy and is face-down on the sidewalk crying and holding a piece of broken glass. The house in his vision was once calming to him but is now old, abandoned, and rundown, despite being surrounded by peaceful fields and cattle. His limited existence cracked and gave way to a new perspective.

The final scene of the film sums this up for me symbolically:  two guys steal an unconscious Mike’s shoes and belongings and another guy stops and picks Mike up.  It is difficult to continue living the same existence when everything you have, and everything you believe in has been taken from you. You have no choice but to start again. And, perhaps your frame of reference, your own private Idaho will not be as small as it was before.

Leslie Sampson Written by: