The 90s were a pretty great time for scrappy and crude film-making, but if you want to look for its magnetic north, then you need to go to Monmouth County, New Jersey, home to all things great in the Garden State, and head up to the shore of the Raritan Bay, west of the ferry stations but east of the swamp, south of the beach and north of the highway. There, you will find a seriously unremarkable building with a measly Quick Stop in one part of it, and nondescript storage space in the rest of the place. But once upon a time, this was more than just another Quick Stop. It was the Quick Stop where a local kid cashed out his comics collection, maxed out his credit cards, misspent some insurance money and raided his college fund to take a chance on telling a story. That kid is Kevin Smith, and his movie was Generation X’s grimy, cinematic coming-out party: Clerks.
The story takes place one Saturday in a Quick Stop convenience store in Leonardo, NJ, where hapless nobody Dante Hicks works behind the counter. As he will say repeatedly during his fateful day, he wasn’t even supposed to come to work, but has to fill in for the owner, who skipped out to Vermont for the day. Dante dutifully schleps in and is joined by his friend Randal Graves, a shiftless smart aleck who technically runs the video rental store next door, but doesn’t really do anything more than neglect his duties, insult customers and loiter with Dante. During the day, the two get into any range of conversations about pop culture, women, their jobs, selling cigarettes to under-aged kids and more. Somewhere in all that, they manage to hold a roller hockey game on the roof and attend the wake for one of Dante’s ex-girlfriends who recently passed away. Outside, two drug dealers named Jay and Silent Bob hold court for the various slackers and weirdos who pass by. But inside, Dante is facing a romantic crisis: he has unresolved feelings for his long-time ex, Caitlin, who is back in town and will surely break his heart again, and he feels hard done by his current girlfriend Veronica who has fooled around with more guys than Dante initially thought. By the end of his shift, Dante will have been given more than enough evidence that the only one to blame for his current misery is himself. The question is whether or not he’ll actually quit complaining and do something about it. Or…maybe he’ll just come back to work tomorrow. Whatever.
Clerks is a rough, even primitive, movie. Smith made it for the equivalent of $50,000 today, and it shows. Most of the dialogue feels imperfect, like there really wasn’t enough time for another shot to get a better take. The same extras play multiple roles, and the cheap 16mm B&W film it was shot on gives the whole thing the well-deserved look of an aspiring amateur.
But here’s the thing: for all of those reasons to look down on Clerks, it still manages to cast a strange spell—especially for those in Dante and Randal’s age bracket, at the time the movie came out. Its wisecracking, foul-mouthed cast all mage to capture what it sounds and feels like to be a twentysomething who has done enough to know just how little they’ve traveled, and is smart enough to know just how little they really know. There’s all kinds of gutter-level wisdom being slung back and forth here, but when the movie really buckles down and decides to get a little serious, what it deals out is honesty. The stakes here aren’t particularly huge: Dante is so incapable of committing to a course of action (aside from whining) that he manages to blow up his life for almost no gain. There is nothing particularly admirable or heroic about him. We either feel a little ashamed over the extent to which we see ourselves in him, or we share Randal’s desire to slap some sense into the guy. Either way, watching him moan and groan is a slow-motion exercise in watching somebody set one’s own agency on fire. While the various episodes of Dante’s day are weird, funny, insightful or just off-putting, they all inevitably involve Dante abdicating his ability to influence how the scene ends.
After a while, we begin to really feel for his girlfriend Veronica, who made the questionable move of transferring colleges so she could be closer to Dante and help him get out of his rut. As far as devotion to lost causes go, Veronica deserves some kind of medal or statue in her honor, because for all of the effort she puts into trying to make Dante feel like he’s a guy worth loving, all he can do is flip his lid over a pretty hypocritical standard he set for how much sex is acceptable to have in one’s past. Clerks never tries to be particularly dainty with its language (and the homophobic slurs its characters use, while common enough back then, really don’t wear well now), but it talks about relationships with a welcome degree of frankness. So when Caitlin suddenly shows up, eager to rekindle things—thereby proving the very thing Randal warned him about—the only actual initiative Dante shows is to go after the one thing he absolutely should not show any interest in.
It all brings us to the moment of truth, when even Randal has had enough of Dante’s moping. Yeah, sure, Dante’s wasn’t supposed to be here today. Nobody is. But whether we stay is up to us. Even Silent Bob finally breaks his silence to remind Dante that some women will bring you lasagna at work, and some will just drive you nuts. It shouldn’t be that hard to figure this stuff out. But for some people, it is. And for those poor bastards, every day is a double shift.