“… I love you, and you don’t pay me”
These words are uttered softly as two young men sit across from each other in the desert, with only a flickering fire between them. The tenderness and vulnerability that come with these words causes the scene to become a defining moment in the film My Own Private Idaho.
The film, directed by Gus van Sant, is a story about love, longing, self-discovery and heartbreak. It follows the journey of Mike Waters and Scott Favor, two male hustlers from Portland, who end up in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Rome. The film is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Henry V and has theatrical elements and dialogue scattered throughout.
River Phoenix plays Mike, a homeless, narcoleptic street hustler. The audience follows his struggles, relationships and experiences with others, both close to him and distant. He constantly has visions of his estranged mother, so he sets out on a journey to find her and hopefully find some sort of normalcy along the way. At first, he seems to drift without direction. He faces many different personal challenges along the way such as finding a sense of personal belonging that he has lacked and dealing with the feelings he has for Scott, played by Keanu Reeves.
Scott is the rebellious son of Portland’s mayor. He has enjoyed his life on the street the past few years as a hustler with Mike and various others, but he vows to make an abrupt change in his lifestyle when he receives his father’s inheritance on his 21st birthday. He has known Mike for over three years and considers him his best friend.
My Own Private Idaho connects with its audience in a number of ways. Its avant-garde approach in its filmmaking and cinematography gives a lasting impression and makes it stand out from other indie films that were made around the time, such as Slacker (1990) and Mala Noche (1985).
At the film’s release in 1991, #LGBTQ+ media representation was rare, and being queer was considered a taboo topic. However, this film challenged common stereotypes by giving a unique and intricate perspective to a marginalized community and a queer character. Mike is a character who has real struggles. He doesn’t exist just for comedic and entertainment purposes, and he isn’t a character with a small role. My Own Private Idaho remains a significant film to the LGBTQ+ community today.
Initially, Gus van Sant wanted the character of Mike to be asexual. However, Phoenix decided it would be best to portray the character as gay. This was a major turning point in production that resulted in the character having many more obstacles throughout the film.
My Own Private Idaho does not focus on Mike’s sexual desires, but rather emphasizes the longing and other emotional aspects of his relationships with others, including Scott. It gives you a close perspective and puts you in the very pivotal and intimate moments of his own experiences. Mike is unfazed and resilient given what he’s been through and his upbringing. The way he feels for Scott has always been there, but it has been repressed. When their travels lead them across the country and overseas, this is when things begin to change between the two.
The film’s storytelling is meaningful, as it tells the story mostly through Mike’s perspective, but also features flashbacks to enhance the plot and give greater insight to his actions. The film also features real documentary footage from street hustlers from Portland, which makes the film feel authentic and original. The footage also accentuates and supports the storyline and the characters of Mike and Scott.
My Own Private Idaho communicates a deep array of emotions and is a film I consider among my favorites. Its strong use of aesthetics helps tie the story together and make it complete. From the deep warm colors of the northwestern terrain to the detail of the grunge and rugged clothing, the cinematography not only made it visually appealing, but also realistic.
The characters within My Own Private Idaho are truly one-of-a-kind. The film would not work as well without the passion that Phoenix and Reeves bring to these characters. Other supporting characters within the film also bring greater depth to the story by emphasizing the quirks and the individuality that each of them hold.
My Own Private Idaho is a poetic and melodramatic work of indie film art, and it delivers the unexpected in just the right fashion. It continues to be a timeless classic and reaches people in ways that leave an impassioned and engaging sentiment.