Cliff Spab is no hero. He's just another loser, a kid just out of high school raised on TV and fast food, working minimum wage without a dream. S.F.W. (1994) could be dismissed as a cookie-cutter Gen X movie in the mold of Pump Up the Volume (1990) and subUrbia (1996), but for the fact that its critique on how the media trivializes and commodifies tragedy has, if anything, become stronger twenty years later in the wake of 9/11, reality TV, and alternative facts.
Cliff (Stephen Dorff) and his buddy Joe (Jack Noseworthy) head into the Fun Stop convenience store one night to get a six pack, and find themselves held hostage by a mysterious terrorist organization. Clad in jumpsuits and face stockings and calling themselves "Split Image," the masked terrorists handcuff Cliff, Joe, and the other customers and relentlessly film them with video cameras. Two of the hostages are murdered, but Cliff and Joe remain in captivity for 36 days with Wendy (Reese Witherspoon), a middle class high school girl. Surviving on the store's junk food and chugging beer from the liquor cases, the trio enact skits for the cameras to pass the time, parroting every commercial and sitcom they've watched and making fun of their awful situation. Cliff goes on rants about his life: his lousy parents, his shitty minimum wage job at Burger Boy, and the apathy he feels facing life without purpose: "How is this different than anything else that's happened in my life? All I've always said is 'So fucking what,' that's all anyone's gotta do!"
Cliff and Wendy become close, and when Joe initiates a daring escape which results in a shootout with their captors Cliff saves Wendy from harm. Joe is killed but Cliff wakes up in the hospital. Unbeknownst to him, their entire 36-day ordeal has been broadcast on TV across America with an anxious public tuning in nightly. Cliff's sneering humor and blasé attitude about life and death have made him a national celebrity and a Gen X idol, a romantic Kurt Cobain cut with Bart Simpson. "Spab Burgers" are now selling at Burger Boy, and T-shirts with his face and the slogan 'So Fucking What' are selling in record stores. Cliff's snide confrontations with his captors, fuelled by a suicidal despair, have been mistaken for charming bravado. He keeps up the nihilistic front, and when asked by reporters why he chose that day to escape the Fun Stop, Cliff shrugs, "We ran out of beer."
While trying to wrap his head around this sudden fame, Cliff is trying to deal with the trauma he's experienced in the store. He saw three people murdered, including his best friend, and now he's seeing his imprisonment played back to him in between commercials and edited for time and content. Cliff doesn't want to be a hero, and he's angry that Joe's role in the escape is all but forgotten. As Joe's grieving sister explains to Cliff, "They forgot about Joe as soon as they had you to interview and praise. He wasn't funny like you, he didn't come up with all the lines you did." He watches Wendy on Donahue and Larry King and sees that she's going through the same shock at her sudden celebrity status, and both of them shy away from tabloid-level gossip about the nature of their friendship.
Cliff decides to embrace his celebrity status and cash in on the TV movies and sitcom parodies of his experience, enjoying comped hotel suites and becoming a guest VJ on an off-brand MTV channel. He reconnects with Wendy, the one person who calls Cliff on his bullshit. Cliff can be honest with Wendy since they've experienced the same trauma; he doesn't feel the need to always be entertaining or speak in catchphrases. In Wendy, Cliff finally has something to look forward to, something to live for. As Cliff and Wendy begin their romance, the media and the public grow tired of Cliff's weary take on the world. New violence inevitably erupts and the bored audiences move on to new heroes with new slogans.
S.F.W. is grim satire: an indictment on the dehumanizing effect 24/7 media coverage has on real emotions, and a caricature of early-'90s Gen X culture. Cliff is an amalgam of apathetic icons Kurt Cobain, Christian Slater, and Beavis & Butthead; the soundtrack features a theme song by GWAR and tracks from Hole, Marilyn Manson, Soundgarden, and Suicidal Tendencies. Thankfully, terrorist group Split Image remain a colorless, domestic threat that's never explained, so international politics don't creep into the story. The point is more about how the media feeds on any pain as entertainment, and demands a hightened level of gore as viewers become numb to torture and murder.
S.F.W. is not a great movie, at times making its point about a careless media with after-school-special simplicity. But it's a damned entertaining glimpse into a bygone era of pre-internet America, where music videos reflected the culture of hopelessness felt by the emerging generation, dozens of cable channels broadcast pop culture junk 24/7, and violence was consumed like candy by a reality-hungry public. If only we could return to those innocent times.
S.F.W. is available on bluray from Olive Films and on DVD from MGM