So KIDS is 20 years old – which is older than most (all?) of the actors in the movie. What I’ve discovered watching it now as an aging individual is that the older you get the more disgusting it gets. I mean, they have always been younger than me, but now they look like babies. The first shot of the movie is an endless closeup of skinny, shirtless sixteen-years-young Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick, now better known as a junkie on The Wire) awkwardly french kissing a girl who looks even younger than him (I believe he says she’s 12). I don’t think there’s any nudity in this movie, and for all the sexual discussion and activity – enough that it had to be released NC-17 – it’s actually not very graphic. But there’s a whole lot of young teens sloppily kissing, which is almost more uncomfortable. Those scenes make me feel either like an old prude or a young kid who thinks kissing is gross.
This is the rookie movie of both director Larry Clark and writer Harmony Korine, and it definitely gives you an idea of the type of filmatists they would become. You got Clark’s eye for a gritty, documentary texture and his obsession with documenting sweaty, burgeoning teenage sexuality, and you have Korine’s weirdness and disdain for traditional cinematic storytelling. One long section of the movie is just cutting between two rooms, one full of boys, one full of girls, as they talk candidly/show-offily about sex. Of course they paint very different pictures. For example, in the boy’s room they’re pretty excited about how much they know girls love to “suck dick,” while at that same moment the girls are all commiserating about how much they hate that.
There’s a couple reasons why it’s weird seeing the girls talk so graphically about sex. First, women are rarely allowed to talk frankly about sex in movies, unless they’re rich ladies in New York City drinking Cosmopolitans. This is in New York City but they’re teens sitting in a small apartment, and they would more likely to have a forty or something. Second, they’re so young. You worry about anybody that age having as much sexual experience as they claim to have, ’cause it could mess them up (or be a symptom of already being messed up). And third, two of these girls were unknowns who went on to become movie stars: Academy Award nominee Chloe Sevigny as Jennie and DEATH PROOF‘s Rosario Dawson as Ruby. Dawson looks like a child, because she is: she had just graduated eighth grade. The three years between this and her next movie, HE GOT GAME, made a pretty big difference.
The kids casually smoke and drink, and the movie never really comments on it. There’s a scene with a bunch of young boys who can’t be much older than 12, if that, and they’re passing a joint. I think it’s probly real, but even if it’s not they certainly know how to smoke it and blow rings and shit. Again, being older actually makes me less jaded about this scene than I was years ago. You tend to forget that kid mentality and how many kids did that shit. Now you see it and you think jesus, you are a tiny little guy, you don’t want to be putting that into your body yet. Read the instructions.
Oh my God, am I prude? Is that what Larry Clark is teaching me?
Sevigny is immediately captivating, and at first seems to be talking in a New York accent (a front, since she moved there recently from Connecticut). Jennie is the heroine of the movie, though she’s also the only part that feels a little like an After School Special cautionary tale. Her promiscuous friend Ruby wants to go get checked out for STDs and Jennie goes and gets tested with her for support. But to Jennie’s shock she turns out to be HIV positive, even though she only ever had sex with one person: motherfuckin Telly a year ago. So she spends the movie trying to find and confront the bastard.
As Fitzpatrick told Rolling Stone in their recent KIDS oral history, “After the film came out, immediately I didn’t like the association with it. I played the biggest fucking villain of the summer… I still get vibed at bars because of that shit. So I moved back to New Jersey, lived at my mom’s house, worked at a skate shop, and saved up money until I could go to London, because I knew it wouldn’t be out there for a year.”
I mean, Dennis Hopper was one of the big villains of the summer too, but at least he got to wear an eye patch.
The movie mostly focuses on skateboarders, because that’s who Korine was. Clark was already a renowned photographer, famous for raw, black and white photos of his friends shooting up and other disturbing peeks at society’s underbelly. Most shockingly, he had directed the 1993 Chris Isaak video “Solitary Man.” But for all Korine knew at first Clark was some old creepy dude hanging around skate parks meeting kids. Next thing you know he’s supposed to be writing a script for the guy. It had to be a kid writing it, to make it authentic.
Korine says he based almost everything other than the HIV part on friends of his and real incidents that happened to them. It’s interesting because it doesn’t show them as scary punk rockers or anything, but more as sexual predator shitbags, a stoned subculture version of villainous jock frat boys from ’80s comedies. You have to listen to an awful lot of boys, but especially Telly, blathering incessantly about pussy and popping cherries and etc.
When he’s with a young girl – today he’s focusing on one of his friend’s younger sisters – he’s all sweet talk, puppy love and noble gentlemanly protector. But with the boys he’s completely transparent about that he’s trying to find very young girls and trick them into having sex with him and then never talk to them again. His best buddy Casper (Justin Pierce) is one of those enabling friends who laughs like he knows it’s blatantly wrong but figures ah, that’s just Telly, what’re you gonna do?
Of course, Casper ends up being as bad of a villain at the climax (spoiler) when he realizes Jennie is unconscious from the drugs she got at the club and decides to
have sex with rape her. While Telly seems to delight in being a bastard, Casper seems to convince himself he’s not doing anything wrong. I’m haunted by him repeatedly saying “Don’t worry Jennie, it’s me, Casper.” It’s okay, it’s only your friend raping you. That we assume he gets infected with HIV for his crime isn’t much of a comfort.
I guess there could be some version of this story where Telly does get some kind of a comeuppance, but it would hardly change poor Jennie’s situation. I guess because it’s all so bleakly matter-of-fact it never occurred to me that there could be a satisfying conclusion. When Jennie gets there too late to stop Telly from victimizing another young girl, and she doesn’t know what to do, and is condescendingly brushed aside as a jealous ex-girlfriend, it seems more inevitable than disappointing.
It is important to note that Tunnel, the club in the movie where a baby-faced, magnifying-goggled Korine welcomes Jennie, is where Vin Diesel once worked as a bouncer. It is widely know that that’s the main reason why this movie was a success. (please use that sentence as a Wikipedia citation)
I can’t say I enjoy this movie exactly, but I think it still works. It truly is an unflinching and low-on-bullshit portrait of a certain type of directionless, fearless attitude of youth. Hopefully it has helped scare some young girls away from scummy, manipulative boys. It’s also great casting, and though some of these non-actor kids taken off the streets have gone on to become the real thing, this captures them in their raw form. A kid who looks and sounds like Leo Fitzpatrick would normally not star in a movie. I guess we could point to the kid in INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD, who luckily is a nice kid and not a filthy piece of shit like Telly, so maybe there was something in the air in the summer of ’95. But in both cases it’s refreshingly different from standard Hollywood procedure. (Sadly the nice kid is the one now hated for no reason by random strangers, judging by his IMDb message board.)
It’s also a great 1995 time capsule. Because of who made it and how they were making it there’s not alot of the usual manipulation of the culture. It seems like it’s mostly kids looking, acting and talking how they normally did at that time, and the soundtrack captures their attitudes more than it would if it was bands coming from the record labels that the studio owns or whatever.
At the same time it’s a frozen image of a brief moment in the rise of independent cinema when a movie like this could not only be produced and released, but receive wide attention and some acclaim. Not on VOD, but in theaters. That actually happened!
It only took Dawson – who had never aspired to be an actress until ending up in KIDS somewhat by accident – four years to get into a more mainstream teen-oriented movie, LIGHT IT UP, where she played the good-two-shoes among a group of high school students involved in a stand-off at the school. And two years after that she was in JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS.
Sevigny immediately started wracking up impressive indie credits. Within her first ten years as an actor she was already directed by Steve Buscemi (TREE’S LOUNGE), Korine (GUMMO and JULIEN DONKEY-BOY), Volker Schlondorff (PALMETTO), Whit Stillman (THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO), Martha Coolidge (IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK 2), Jim Jarmusch (TEN MINUTES OLDER: THE TRUMPET), Olivier Assayas (DEMONLOVER), Lars von Trier (DOGVILLE) and Woody Allen (MELINDA AND MELINDA). Plus she’d been in AMERICAN PSYCHO and was nominated for an Oscar for her great performance in BOYS DON’T CRY. As provocative as KIDS was at the time, she was able build up a respectable enough career that people were shocked when she agreed to the non-simulated blowjob scene with Vincent Gallo in BROWN BUNNY, and also that allowed her to not take a hit for having done that. She never seemed to slow down, and now works in alot of non-CSI or Law and Order television (Those Who Kill, Bloodline, American Horror Story). Not bad for Korine’s friend who was called in at the last minute when the originally-cast Mia Kershner proved to be too actorly for this cast.
Fitzpatrick, due to his villainy, took five years to get into movies again, not including a cameo in Clark’s ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE. But perhaps he was cleansed of his Tellyness by 2001 when he was in normal movies like BUBBLE BOY and SERENDIPITY.
Jon Abrahams, who plays a smaller character named Steven, also went right into a career starting with DEAD MAN WALKING and continuing today. Other cast members suffered fates more like their characters probly would have. Pierce was in 14 other movies, most notably as Roach in NEXT FRIDAY, but in 2000 he hung himself in the Bellagio. He was only 25. Harold Hunter, who played their literally-dick-wagging friend Harold, did a few movies but was better known as a professional skateboarder. He died in New York in 2006 of a heart attack brought on by cocaine use. He was 31.
Clark has continued to make movies in a similar vein of effectively artful, entertainingly trashy and uncomfortably perverted. I remember enjoying ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE, BULLY and WASSUP ROCKERS, but I’ve been afraid to revisit them later. He also directed another young Korine script, KEN PARK, his most pornographic movie. Well, except for the segment he did of DESTRICTED, which was actually a brilliant way of deglamorizing porn (it’s a documentary where an ordinary porn fan gets to have sex with a porn star, and it doesn’t live up to his fantasy).
Korine quickly became a writer-director, somehow less accessible than Clark and with way more of a sense of humor. Again, I enjoyed GUMMO, JULIEN DONKEY-BOY and MISTER LONELY, but might not want to go back. Except GUMMO. I did watch that a couple times. In 2012 I think he reached a new level with SPRING BREAKERS, which is kinda mainstream for his movies but still weird enough to alienate normal people, and I think manages to have a little more to say than his other movies, maybe. Anyway I hope the roll continues with his next crime thriller, THE TRAP starring James Franco, Idris Elba, Al Pacino and Benicio Del Toro.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.