In this elliptical ensemble piece, which marks the directorial debut of indie bad boy Harmony Korine, the teens of tornado-scarred Xenia, Ohio, kill cats, tape their boobies, arm-wrestle, bathe, cross-dress, huff glue, avoid perverts, pay to have sex with retarded girls, lift makeshift dumbbells to the strains of Madonna’s "Like a Prayer," fight, cuss, shave their eyebrows, undergo cancer treatment, euthanize senior citizens, and pee on passing cars. A hallucinatory barrage of images and scenarios with little in the way of traditional plot, Gummo has been variously described as a surrealist joke, a visual poem, and a worm’s-eye view of white-trash suffering.
The main characters include Solomon, who sells cat carcasses to a middleman who procures them for use at a local Chinese restaurant; his mother, who teaches him to tap dance while reminiscing about her dead husband; Tummler, a mullet-haired local sex symbol; a midget; a pair of boy-crazy, bleach-blond sisters named Dot and Helen; a slut with a lump in her breast; a group of drunken louts; and Bunny Boy, who wanders the town enigmatically in a pair of long pink ears. In between scenes of these characters enacting their bizarre routines, Korine intersperses impressionistic and quasi-documentary scenes with voice-over narration that ranges from incest memoirs to arty dialogue along the lines of "He’s got what it takes to be a legend: He’s got a marvelous persona."
Gummo follows no particular narrative trajectory, nor does it end in any conclusive way. It presents a series of dispassionate vignettes — the effects of a tornado, two paint-sniffing adolescent boys, two teenage girls exploring beauty and sexuality — which are remarkable for their realism and lack of narrative rhythm. This meandering reflects Korine’s insistence, following French director Jean-Luc Godard, that a film should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Korine has constructed a film in which the historical identity and daily concerns of Gummo’s working-class characters are neither romanticized nor patronized.