Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s Kids was released 20 years ago this week, but if you want to have a celebratory home screening of it, you’re going to have a harder time than you might have expected. Once as controversial a cultural property as the soon-to-be-a-Broadway-musical American Psycho was back in the day, Kids was released by the then-Harvey-and-Bob-Weinstein-controlled Miramax under the rubric “Shining Excalibur Pictures,” contrived to deflect attention from Disney, then Miramax’s parent company. The initial DVD release of the movie’s been out of print for some time, and it’ll likely be a while before the new owner of Miramax’s library gets the film onto a screening service, or puts out a new DVD or Blu-ray. You can watch it on YouTube as of this writing, but of course almost anytime some schmuck announces the unauthorized availability of a copyrighted property on YouTube, some legal department comes along and takes it down. Sorry!
Kids’ significance as an alt-cultural touchstone is pretty undeniable. The movie, the feature film debut of the uncompromising photographer and multi-media artist Larry Clark, introduced the world to cinematic enfant terrible Harmony Korine, who wrote the script and appears in a telling cameo. It launched the acting careers of still vital performers Chloe Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, and Leo Fitzpatrick. The movie still pulsates with color and energy, and its near-documentary depiction of a still-raw Manhattan is bracing. For all that, it’s not necessarily a movie one would want to have a celebratory commemorative screening of anyway. Even without the knowledge that at least two of the movie’s young principal performers are now dead—and under circumstances that are terribly sad but likely unsurprising—Kids is a relentlessly unpleasant experience.
Born in Tulsa in 1943, director Clark got into photography, starting in the early ‘60s, by shooting his teen and twenty-something cohorts doing drugs and having sex. The photos of young people, their needles, and their couplings, collected in Clark’s book Tulsa made no pretense to sociological value as such. Nor do they seem voyeuristic; because Clark was a part of the tribe he was shooting, the pictures have a perspective that feels almost feral, pre-phenomenological. That’s why they’re such powerful works of art. For better or worse, Clark has since rarely trained his eye on a state of being past adolescence, or immediate-post-adolescence. It’s interesting, though, that for his first film, he chose to frame his views within what it would be an understatement to call a cautionary tale. Indeed, Kids is, in a sense, a super-lurid variant of the 1955 evil-urban-teen chestnut Blackboard Jungle, only more ostensibly terrifying because it takes place entirely outside a realm in which any authority figure can make a difference. As such, it’s one of the most conventional films Clark’s put his name on, and it’s definitely the most straightforward thing in Korine’s filmography almost to the point of being an anomaly.
Kids opens in the middle of a wet hot open-mouthed kiss between two fresh-faced adolescents; it’s a shot that feels very close to Clark’s photographic work, because it’s so in their moment. But of course it’s terribly uncomfortable as a movie opening, particularly to any viewer over 30. What are these kids doing? Exactly what you think they’re doing, and are going to do. The seemingly sweetly cocky boy Telly (Fitzpatrick) is telling Sarah Henderson’s “Girl #1” how good it’s gonna be for her: “I think if we fucked you’d love it.” And so they do. The movie’s depiction of sex is far less explicit than in Clark’s photos or many of his subsequent films, but the sex scenes here are still shot and edited with squirm-inducing what-do-I-think-I-almost-just-saw precision. And then Telly leaves the girl’s apartment, releasing a gob of spit down the stairwell on his way out, and downstairs brags to his homie Casper (Justin Pierce), “Virgins, I love ‘em.”
Like N.W.A.’s now-classic 1988 hip-hop album Straight Outta Compton, Kids depicts a mode of existence that’s never not incredibly intense. But now as then, from where I sat, the movie overplays its hand. The Telly character, who can’t even shoplift from a deli without being a complete dick about it, is Exhibit A in this respect. (Fitzpatrick’s portrayal of the character was so convincing I worried that he’d get the shit kicked out of him by an angry moviegoer some time.)
He’s even more of a scumbag than he knows, as it happens: he’s HIV positive, and he’s infected Jennie (Sevigny), a girl he used his “you’d love it” schtick on the summer before. After his morning cherry-popping work out, Telly and Casper go hang with some lowlife buddies, decline whippets, and talk about sex. This discourse is intercut with a similar colloquy between Jennie (who’s not yet aware of her diagnosis) and pals including Rosario Dawson’s Ruby. The differing perspectives allow Clark and Korine to indulge some not-unpredictable battle-of-the-sexes irony. “Bitches love sucking dick,” boasts one fellow. “You know what’s the worst? Sucking dick,” laughs one girl.
The eyebrow-raising naturalism of the dialogue cleverly disguises the plot points being set up. Ruby and Jennie have an appointment at a clinic later that day, to get HIV test results; Ruby, the more experienced and reckless girl, will come out clean, while Jennie, whose only experience has been with Telly, will learn she’s positive. Kids then becomes something of a stop-the-killer-before-he-strikes again story. Jennie, in spite of her emotional devastation, makes it her mission to find and confront Telly. Telly, on the other hand, is already in hot pursuit of another virgin, the fresh-faced innocent Darcy.
Prior to the hunt, though, Telly and Casper wend on their electrically awful way. One may feel like definitively defenestrating both these rampagers, who take nothing seriously yet are utterly devoid of humor, by the 20 minute mark. At this point, though, their tediously sexualized conversation is interrupted by a legless subway beggar rolling his way through the cars, giving the guys pause. Casper seems almost human as he gives the guy some change, but the moment seems forced, contrived. And the pair’s contemplative side doesn’t get too much more time. Soon—and this is where the over-determination really kicks in—they make it to Telly’s apartment; Telly’s haggard, lumpen mom is both smoking a cigarette and nursing an infant; she refuses Telly’s request for a loan; out of mom’s earshot, Casper “compliments” Telly’s mom’s “titties” and puts one of her tampons up his nose while Telly steals from her purse.
The pair decamp to Washington Square Park, where they meet up with Frankenstein-browed skateboarder Harold (Harold Hunter)—an actual African-American, unlike these very pale wannabes. (It is no accident that the movie’s soundtrack features several Beastie Boys tracks; the whole thing’s like The Dark Side of Licensed To Ill.) This leads to one of the movie’s most disturbing (it’s like a Can You Top This contest by this point, really) scenes, in which Harold leads a skateboard gang attack against another African-American who dared talk shit to him. Today, the spectacle of mostly white kids using their bodies to more or less bury a black man alive, topped off by Telly’s slo-mo dropping of another gob of spit on the man’s unconscious skull, is—if such a thing is even possible—more repellent than it was in 1995. I mean, fuck these guys. Seriously.
And on it goes, into the night and the pursuit of more virginity, the relentless coarse vulgarity (correctly, I suppose) sucking all of the titillation potential out of the material. At a sneak night swim at a public pool—one reason authority figures are completely impotent in this world is that, apparently, there are none even around, for Christ’s sake— Telly lays his “charm” on Darcy. He tells her “I was thinking about you when I woke up,” and Clark flash-cuts to him banging Girl #1 lo, those many hours ago. Okay, we get it, man.
Jennie remains one or two steps behind Telly, and once she stops at a hot nightspot she encounters a club kid who indirectly seals her doom. Played in a rather meta touch by screenwriter Korine, he offers her a drug that he says makes “Special K look weak” and which will have her “kissing Leo Gorcey on the chops,” a very Korine pop culture reference that even the Beasties might have found forced. Said drug incapacitates her to the extent that not only does she fail in her mission, but…
“Sometimes when you’re young, the only place to go is inside,” Telly says in a voiceover monologue as the film draws to a close. Like the subway bit, this attempt at lyricism falls flat in the context of what I remember more than one critic called “a wake-up call” to parents across this nation. Which perception was in keeping with the film’s canny marketing: this was not merely an Art Film, but a Movie of Social Significance. The end credits specified that a portion of the film’s revenue would be donated to teen crisis centers.
The actor who played Casper, Justin Pierce, was a real-life skateboarder who committed suicide in 2000; Harold Hunter, also a boarder, died of a heart attack in 2006. HIV infection among sexually active teens is not as much of a hot-button topic as it was in 1995, but it hasn’t disappeared either. Director Clark remains at the well of teendom, while writer-turned-director Korine mixes it up a bit. The latter’s 2012 Spring Breakers is very nearly, in many respects, a garish neon burlesque of some of Kids’ concerns. It’s too soon to tell, but it may well turn out to be the more durable film.
Longtime film critic Glenn Kenny was 35 when ‘Kids’ was released, and at the time he felt guilty and creepy for finding Rosario Dawson ‘cute’.