Movies from The Library: My Own Private Idaho

Will SorgEntertainment Writer

Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho tells the story of two friends who hustle on the streets of Portland. Starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, the film was a critical success and incredibly subversive as a queer film at a time when good gay representation was rare. 

Van Sant does his best to put the audience in the perspective of the main character, Mike Waters. He is a street hustler with narcolepsy and lives in a constant state of disorientation. Mike tries to make sense of the world within the comfort of the things he knows: money, his friends, and his mentor Bob. Yet he keeps falling asleep and ending up somewhere new, often dragged to the next possible money making scheme by his closest friend Scott Favor. In these moments of sleep, Mike has a recurring dream of a road in Idaho where he grew up. The story is told through Mike’s perspective and as a result it follows a very dreamlike rhythm. Mike is repeatedly in the middle of a scene when he suddenly falls asleep, the story continuing on without him until he wakes up with Scott on his way somewhere else. The bizarre dream sequences, like one where Mike, Scott, and other hustlers talk about their work as male prostitutes while pictured on magazine covers, further emphasize the otherworldly qualities of the film. These put the audience in the perspective of a young man who longs for purpose yet feels he has no clear direction in life. 

Scott serves as a clear foil to Mike. He has a clear direction but desperately wants to avoid facing his old life. Scott is the son of a wealthy mayor who has sought out the company of the impoverished band of young people as a rebellion against his father. He is a layered character because, much like Mike, he is a hustler. He prostitutes himself and generally lives a lifestyle that conventional society would find profane. However, he denies he is attracted to men, saying that he only has sex with men for money and that his more feminine tendencies are rebellion against his traditionalist family. This creates a dissonance, as there is a clear affection and connection between Mike and Scott. Whether Scott feels romantic attraction to Mike or not is never fully laid out,  but there is a clear closeness felt in the film that is typically not explored in more heteronormative films. 

This whole dynamic between the two characters, one an out-queer man and the other a repressed, rebellious, rich kid, helps to build a story that is as engaging as it is subversive. It was revolutionary for a film to look into the world of young, gay, poverty-stricken men in America when the AIDS crisis was still in full swing and homosexuality was still very taboo to talk about in the film industry. Obviously there have always been LGBTQ+ stories in film, but for two of the biggest young movie stars in the 90s to work on a movie that includes such an un-glamourous, honest depiction of young people trying to figure out their own lives is very moving to watch. It is no surprise that Gus Van Sant quickly became one of the most renowned queer filmmakers in America, and My Own Private Idaho a cult classic.