The debut film of director Gus Van Sant, this independent, low-budget comedy-drama based on an autobiographical novel by Walt Curtis was produced on black-and-white 16 mm film for only $25,000. Tim Streeter stars as Walt, the manager of a seedy liquor store in Portland, OR. Walt, who is gay, has fallen desperately in love with Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a teenage illegal Mexican immigrant who doesn't speak English. Although Johnny is utterly unaffected by Walt's attentions, the boy does agree to sleep with his suitor for $25, but Walt can't come up with the cash. Introduced to Walt's sister Betty (Nyla McCarthy), it becomes clear that Johnny prefers her romantic company. Walt settles for Johnny's best friend Roberto Pepper (Ray Monge), becoming the boys' protector and patron, teaching them how to drive and trying to learn Spanish, despite their cruel indifference toward him. After Roberto is killed by the police, however, Johnny disappears and Betty moves to Alaska to become an exotic dancer, leaving a broken-hearted, lonely, but none the wiser Walt behind. Despite the fact that Mala Noche (1987) was a hit on the festival circuit, even winning Best Independent Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, it was released theatrically only after the success of Van Sant's next film, Drugstore Cowboy (1989).
by Karl Williams synopsis