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Kid 90

When Soleil Moon Frye was seven years old, she starred in the NBC sitcom Punky Brewster, playing a spunky kid in a magenta jean vest abandoned by her mother at a grocery store and adopted by an old widower, brightening his life with the rainbow-colored shine of what she called, for some reason, “Punky Power.” Apparently the ratings were low, but kids loved the character so much they sold dolls of her and gave her her own Saturday morning cartoon show (co-starring a wish-giving hedgehog leprechaun named Glomer).

Four seasons later the show was cancelled, Frye’s next sitcom pilot didn’t get picked up, and for the most part all we knew about her post-Punky life was a story from People Magazine or something about how her breasts grew unusually large, she got sick of being teased about it and got reduction surgery before her sixteenth birthday. There were some guest appearances (The Wonder Years, Saved By the Bell) and some b-movies (PIRANHA, PUMPKINHEAD II), but mostly she was a wacky relic of ‘80s pop culture who had grown up and started a family and hopefully ended up in a healthier place than some of her peers.

So it’s a surprise to see her suddenly come back in the spotlight by

1) starring in a new Punky Brewster show on Peacock (a sequel with the same title as the original, like HALLOWEEN)

and

2) directing a legitimately good documentary memoir about her teenage years.

The doc, which is on Hulu, is called KID 90, and it’s made possible by the odd fact that Frye not only obsessively videotaped herself and her friends, but saved boxes full of answering machine tapes and diaries. In new footage she explains how she stored all these away for decades until recently deciding to go through them for the first time.

The result is an amazing document of a time, place and lifestyle one would normally only know about from talking head interviews. We see that pre-teen and teen Frye was part of a circle of young actors, some we know as faces from TV shows and teen magazines of the time, others as future stars. Stephen Dorff, Brian Austin Green, David Arquette, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Balthazar Getty are seen on the tapes as well as sitting down with Frye now to reflect on what they went through together. We hear her in phone calls crushing on Johnny Depp and Charlie Sheen. We hear voicemails from Mark Wahlberg trying to get a date. She reads impassioned teenage poems and diary entries. There are glimpses of Leonardo DiCaprio boasting that he’s grown taller since he last saw her (Leo also executive produced the movie through his company Appian Way).

The kids hang out at her house (her mom seems cool), they have parties. She likes to ask people their philosophy on life, and most of them come up with something a little less stupid than expected. Sometimes sadder. People who play sassy kids on TV still have dark thoughts like anybody else. There’s a tape of Frye’s manager angrily scolding her for saying ‘fuck’ in a message on his answering machine, because what would people think if they heard sweet little Punky Brewster say ‘fuck’?

This is gonna lock me into a specific age and time, but I was one of the kids who watched Punky Brewster. I remember as an adult being surprised to come across an article about it being voted the worst TV show of the year. It makes perfect sense that grown up people saw it as trash, but I didn’t realize it at that age. The jokes seemed funny to a kid, we liked TV characters who got to dress colorfully, and there was that insane Halloween episode where they got trapped in a haunted cave and had to spear a giant spider to death. Reading about it now I must not have seen the two seasons made for syndication (she runs a teen hangout burger joint in the mall called Punky’s Place?) but it imprinted on me enough that I admit I’ve been drawn into watching several episodes of that new Punky Brewster .

I’m not gonna try to convince you it’s good. I would love if it was some postmodern one-camera show like Cobra Kai, but it’s a traditional multi-camera sitcom with those familiar joke rhythms that make me feel weird because I stopped watching shows like that a couple decades ago. But nostalgia is a hell of a drug.

Punky is a mom now, with one biological daughter and three foster children, including a new one named Izzy obviously meant to be the Punky character. But the show is mostly about grown up Punky parenting and dating – it seems aimed at people who watched it then and are now old. There are many ties to the original show: Punky is still best friends with Cherie (Cherie Johnson), whose friendship with Punky led to her working at Fenster Hall (the shelter for orphans); they live in what is meant to be Henry’s apartment; Punky picked up Henry’s love of photography; they have a dog named Brandi that looks like Brandon, maybe a descendant. So far no references to Glomer or the giant spider, but I got hopes for the latter.

I find it interesting to compare and contrast the show’s modern values to to those of the original show. It’s in the spirit of “Punky Power” how much it encourages acceptance, individuality and non-traditional families, to the point where the kids think Mom is being kind of a dork about it all. There’s stuff you never would’ve gotten in those days about gender identity, and Cherie is a lesbian (like the actress who plays her), and these are wisely treated as normal parts of life, nothing remotely Very Special Episode about them. There’s also something very sweet about how Punky’s ex-husband Travis (Freddy Prinze Jr.) is treated as a family member even though he doesn’t live with them.

One of my strongest memories of the original show is the episode where Punky is pressured by cool kids to use drugs to get into their club. She resists, starts a rival “Just Say No Club” and at the end is seen in a real life “Just Say No” parade with Nancy Reagan! So I was wondering what this grown up, cool Punky would do if she found a joint in her daughter’s bedroom, and sure enough I got to find out. She handles it well – telling her daughter she’s not mad but wants to talk about it. It’s acknowledged that it’s legal now, and a fun thing for adults to do (at some point she seems to have just said yes!) though Travis is really embarrassed when he finds out it was his joint and his daughter was covering for him.

KID 90 also pokes fun at Frye’s P.S.A. past, intercutting her emphatic anti-drug appearances as a child star with her and her friends smoking, drinking and puking. One scene lingers on a few of them having an absolutely euphoric time parked out in the desert while on shrooms. In the present day interviews, one still remembers that day fondly.

Not to say that Nancy Reagan was entirely wrong. For some in Frye’s circle of friends, the drugs become a serious problem. Depression seems like a bigger one. Looking back at the tapes, Frye recognizes cries for help that she didn’t pay attention to. The movie gets very sad and dark, and it’s hard to listen to STEPFATHER II star Jonathan Brandis’s messages trying to get ahold of her, knowing that he ultimately committed suicide when he was only 27. Frye loses way too many friends, including Rodney Harvey from DELIVERY BOYS. She also comes to terms with a sexual assault she never told anyone about, and plays a (distorted) recording of the perpetrator.

“If you make a documentary about this I’ll do one about A Tribe Called Quest.”

There are so many twists and turns in this thing. I had no idea that she was in love with a dude from House of Pain, that’s a major part of it. She reveals the celebrity she lost her virginity to, which I think you will agree with me is an unsettling revelation, but she seems happy about it. There’s a section where she moves to New York and ends up living with the skater boys from the movie KIDS. I don’t know why but I think it’s so nice that they thought she was cool instead of scoffing at her for being Punky Brewster.

All of this would have a certain nostalgia and gossip interest if it was the usual film clips and interviews of pop culture retrospective docs, but the inside view via these home videos makes it fascinating. She even uses footage of her going in to get the breast reduction surgery. And of her giving birth! I’m sure some people will be going through pausing the many photo collages showing her with all kinds of random people. Les Claypool is in one of her videos. She interviews Perry Farrell, for reasons that are not really explained (but I think she knew him from shooting footage during Lollapalooza).

In the end you get not only a glimpse into a life, but a view of the importance of friends who know what you’ve been through. I had no idea of the bond forged over decades between Punky Brewster, Dewey from SCREAM, and motherfuckin Deacon Frost from BLADE. These seem like a good bunch of people – you feel for those they lost, and are glad they had each other. And it seems like Frye got by and made all this happen by trying to be very true and honest to herself. I noticed as she talked about her dad (an actor who was not there for her but loved her and stayed friends with her mother) and her first love (a musician who she grew apart from but still has great love for) that she seems to have put some of these experiences into the updated Punky Brewster. Who would think a show like that could be deeply personal?

What I’m saying is that she has made a good documentary here and she was able to do it because of her Punky Power.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 17th, 2021 at 3:19 pm and is filed under Documentary, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Kid 90”

  1. Surprisingly, PUNKY BREWSTER never aired in Germany, so that explains why I only know it from popculture jokes and Vern references. This sounds like a great documentary, although I’m not sure if the subject really appeals to me.

  2. I thought this was really interesting and I enjoyed it. That’s crazy that she had so much footage and audio recordings and diary entries. I got a little lost in the middle when she was talking about her sexual assault and losing her virginity. I couldn’t figure out if they were the same event or what. Because she said the guy who assaulted her said something about her not being a virgin now. But then she was talking about losing her virginity as a good memory. But when she spoke about the assault she said that she created a false reality where it wasn’t a bad thing, and that she never told anyone about what really happened and hadn’t faced the truth of it herself until making the documentary, so I was confused, thinking the happy losing her virginity story she went right into after talking about the assault was maybe that fake reality she had built. After she talked about reconnecting with the guy she lost her virginity to, I don’t think it’s all one event. I think the happy losing her virginity story is because she doesn’t consider the assault as “losing her virginity” which I whole heartedly agree with. Plus, she doesn’t even hint at who it was that assaulted her, while she’s pretty open about who she lost her virginity to. And that might be the most I’ve ever said (typed) virginity in my life.

    I liked how she talked about wondering if memories can really be accurate. I think the conclusion she came to was that hers were, because I think her concern was with “was it really as good as I remember and did I really have the connections with people I thought I did”. I think those are universal questions everyone has, especially about bonds we had in our youth, or coming into adulthood. I definitely wonder about this idea as a general concept. I’m not sure I’d come to the same conclusion. How “accurate” can they really be, because they’re your perception of what happened. Like, here’s an insight into my youth – I did not have a boyfriend in high school. Any time a family member, or friend of the family, came over to visit and we hadn’t seen them for awhile and were all catching up they would ask if I had a boyfriend and before I could even answer my mom would say, “She’s concentrating on her schooling.” I always took this to mean that my mom didn’t want me to have a boyfriend and wanted me to be diligent in school and have a career. I dove deep into interpreting this as her own unhappiness with her own life – she married straight out of high school and never had a career. And I resented her trying to shape me into the mold she wished she had followed. It wasn’t until the last few years, well into my 30s and maybe even 40s that it occurred to me that she did this as a way of saving me from embarrassment, because no, I didn’t have a boyfriend, so she was stepping in and giving an excuse instead of me feeling bad when I had to say no. I never was embarrassed by it, so it didn’t occur to me this is what she was doing.

  3. I was of course too old to watch the show when it aired here in Norway, but I was aware of it. And it’s amazing how much publicity it has gotten over the years. I think I’ve seen an episode or two by chance, and mostly wondering why Commandant Lassard wasn’t reported to the police for living with a seven year old girl.

  4. I also discovered I never saw the two syndicated seasons! I was watching my vhs recordings when there was still new Punky content on the air! Well, I guess there I was meant to discover them at age 43 on the Peacock streaming service.

    I do appreciate how they kept incorporating lessons in a kids comedy like healthy eating/fat shaming and drunk driving.

  5. I never saw the original PUNKY BREWSTER and so am not busting a gut to watch the revival (which I don’t think is available here yet anyway) but personally I give them some kudos for doing it as a traditional sitcom rather than going full-on post-modern. That SAVED BY THE BELL reboot sounds like pure Pacman2.0 poison. COBRA KAI is brilliant yes, but then these 80s\90s sitcoms don’t have the same kind of legacy as THE KARATE KID to build on.

    I don’t know if this makes me a dinosaur and I understand why much about it could be considered patronising, but I think there are still merits to the old audience/three camera sitcom format. There are obvious downsides to writing scripts where the audience has to laugh at least twice a minute barring special occasions, but it does also encourage a certain amount of discipline. I found THE (US) OFFICE, PARKS & RECREATION and THE GOOD PLACE, all shows I enjoyed to varying extents, all fell in love a little too deep in love with their own characters in later seasons, and consequently started laying on the schmaltz a little too thick. CHEERS, in contrast, I feel had more balanced and more genuinely poignant moments of pathos. Although I believe those three shows I mention have a significant overlap in their creative teams, so maybe it’s more an issue with them than the changing formats.

  6. She has punky power because punk rock is all about being yourself and having a unique outlook on the world, and positively contributing to society by virtue of genuine self-expression and otherwise. This is important so kids don’t have to learn about morals from Minor Threat and or whatever and don’t have to feel like they are copying Bowie or something when they want to wear zany-ass colors.

    I, PUNKY sounds fascinating and important, I will watch it soon. I am mainly here for all the Vern-a-tocious insights, and feel badly when leaving comments on reviews of movies I haven’t seen when there is something of interest in review or subsequent discussion. I am greatly appreciative for all of the interesting and genuine posters here – in this instance (and very often) MaggieMayPie. A lack of comprehension among kids is something so universal. It is important and good to hear about these sort of things from the perspectives of good people, so I am thankful for folks like MaggieMayPie and Solieo.

    It’s awesome that she saved everything. She must be among the more positive of the overwhelmingly-comprehensive self-documenters.

    No dis to another great program that deserves all of its cultural relevance and stature or whatever, but in terms of the relative value of Gold, the Punky theme song is way better than the Golden Girls song.

    One of my many heroes is this guy Bill Idelson, who began his career as a child actor in the 1930s, playing oddly-named, spirited, funny and adopted children on two positive and weird radio comedies, Vic and Sade and Gasoline Alley. His last two writing credits were for episodes Brewster, which I find to be a really nice thought.

    Jeez, I wonder what sorts of media annoying-ass teenage David Arquette was obnoxiously and over-intensely into. I mean, that is coming from a place of an empathy and speaking as one who obviously has his own many unlikable obnoxiousnesses. (Also, did they ever do a thing where during a concert Springsteen danced with David Arquette instead of Courtney Cox, that would have been funny.)

    I am thankful that some well-meaning TV people took all the hateful conservativism out of Little Orphan Annie and replaced it with turning up the Cyndi Lauper dial about a billion percent.

    I would usually watch Punky on a black and white TV, so seeing the show in hypercolor was always a strange emotion.

    Yo that episode with the spider is some scary-ass shit though. That was one of the many important lessons I learned from Punky Brewster, do NOT mess around with sketchy caves.

    Does Freddie Prinze Jr. still write Spider-Man spec scripts? I hope so. It’s cool how Moon Frye seems to know some major nerds, with some of them being of the math-genius variety and some of them of the being-really-into-Spider-Man-before-there-were-movies-of-that-sort-of-thing variety. God bless Real Life Punky Brewster.

    Also this is not A.L.F. from the TV show, this is just some guy who writes that as his name.

  7. Excuse me, I did not fact-check my comment thoroughly – the Punky theme was written by Gary Portnoy, who also wrote the depressing and trans/genderfluid/nonbinary-phobic (if you look up the version with all the lyrics) Cheers theme song.

    Andrew Gold didn’t have anything to do with that nonsense. It is funny that a guy named Gold wrote the song for The Golden Girls, though.

  8. The wife and I checked this out last night, and the 90s nostalgia factor was mighty high. But it was very well made and insightful, and it didn’t condemn these kids for the partying but it also didn’t glorify ot either. It just showed kids being kids, and I really appreciated it.

    (And I found it hilarious that the kids from Kids show up and aren’t portrayed quite as “shocking” as they we’re in Kids. They were just skater kids who liked to skate, drink, and smoke with their friends.)

    Well worth watching, I’m glad I caught it.

  9. If the works of Gary Portnoy have taught us anything:

    Punky Brewster: Socially positive, optimistic, genuine, appreciative, externally-focused
    Cheers: Depressing, needy, angry, expectant, hetronormatively-LGBTQphobic
    Mr. Belevedere: Awesome, dippy, respectably easygoing, a funny contrast between sensibilities, cynical yet uncruel with a quiet hint of spirituality if one is really looking for it, the rare sort of “this is comedy” signifying music that actually is funny sounding

    Though I listen to it once every four years or so, I always forget that the Punky Brewster song also had that funny “Lucky in the Sky With Diamonds” quality and the well-structured and the unrepetitive Brian Wilson/Bacharach bridge.

    Thanks for all of your great reviews, Vern. I will watch this one soon and join the actual conversation.

  10. I only saw an episode or two or PUNKY back in the day. I never really liked family entertainment. My favorite sitcoms were MASH, CHEERS, and BARNEY MILLER. Shows about grown ass adults processing the drudgery and horror of life through humor. I could get down with actual kids stuff about slime and robots and shit but shows like PUNKY BREWSTER felt like they were made for parents to feel good about teaching their kids strong moral lessons, not to actually entertain kids. I did like FAMILY TIES but that show was actually funny and could get fairly adult on occasion. Sitcoms for kids felt alarmingly unsophisticated to me at a pretty young age. Like, anybody who only noticed that SAVED BY THE BELL was trash as an adult must not have been paying very close attention because the only reason besides Kelly Kapowski to watch that show was to see how bad it would suck this week.

    All this to say that I am in the exact demographic as these former teen stars and yet I have almost no attachment to any of them or their work. I’d already seen ROBOCOP. You can’t go back to some teenybopper shit after that.

    Still, I’m interested in the documentary just to see what the other kids were up to while I was busy being awesome.

  11. Watched it last night. I wasn’t so charmed by it, but that’s because I was either regretting my lack of friends in my teens, or the fact that I threw away all of our VHS tapes when I was 22. That aside, I do find these kinds of docs using old VHS footage fascinating. HBO did a whole bunch of docs on addiction and one of them was from this guy who was a TV news anchor who taped his life during his drug years and it was incredibly interesting to watch.

  12. lots of the old footage of young celebs had me doing the leo pointing in Once Upon a Time… gif, but maybe none more so than seeing a 20ish joshua john miller (Near Dark, River’s Edge, Death Warrant) talking about why he’s attracted to guys.

  13. Me too! I’ve heard him on a podcast or two in recent years, since he wrote THE FINAL GIRLS, but I’d never seen him older than, like, CLASS OF 1999 (released in 1990). In fact, I think him being an adult vampire in NEAR DARK got mixed up in my mind so I used to think of him as having a condition like Emmanuel Lewis (also in the movie) or Gary Coleman.

  14. Yes! I was so excited when he showed up, and when my wife asked me who he was, I said “He’s the kid in Death Warrant!!”

    And I got a stare, followed by “What’s Death Warrant?”

    And now tonight i gotta show her Death Warrant

  15. Maybe this is common knowledge, but I was recently stunned to learn that that guy is Jason Patric’s brother, and both of them are Jason Miller’s sons. You mess with the devil, you get vampire kids, I guess.

  16. I knew it Mr. M but remember awhile back when I said I had a crazy, obsessive teenage thing for Corey Haim? Well, it started out as a crazy, obsessive teenage thing for THE LOST BOYS so I know a lot about everyone in that.

  17. It’s tangentially related, but THE ORANGE YEARS: THE NICKELODEON STORY is also on Hulu now, and was quite a trip into my childhood. Stuff I barely remembered as an adult came flooding back.

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