Kids (1995): Larry Clarke’s Feature Debut

Miramax slipped Kids into the Sundance Festival at an unannounced midnight screening, and it immediately became the talk of the festival–the only controversial film in an otherwise disappointing week.

Produced by rebel filmmaker Gus Van Sant, the movie marks an impressive debut by noted photographer Larry Clarke. The screening’s clandestine nature, combined with Clarke’s penchant for lurid subject matter created a buzz–and a packed house of viewers, all glued to their seats.

In its candid, utterly bold approach, Kids dwarfs all of Hollywood’s youth movies, crossing new boundaries in its portrayal of sex and drugs. Why is Kids so shocking Real teenagers, not Hollywood actors in their 20s, are playing the roles. The film feels authentic and the impact is horrific.

Set on a hot summer day, the film is structured as a fast-paced chronicle of 24 hours in the lives of a group of Manhattan kids. They hang out on the streets, relentlessly pursuing kicks, smoking pot, guzzling booze, and so on. Parents may not like to acknowledge it, but the kids in this movie are perpetually and dangerously libidinous. Violence is part of their lives: Incidents of gay-baiting and black bashing are day-to-day occurrences.

The opening scene unflinchingly observes Telly (Leon Fitzpatrick), a horny, irresponsible 14 year old kid, talking a naive blonde (Sarah Hendersen) into the sack. As soon as sex is over, the cocky kid hits the streets to boast to his buddies of his conquest. Telly’s monologue about his obsession with virgins and his plan to score another big conquest that night is unsettling, precisely because it’s so believable.

In the afternoon, the wild kids head for a local pool for some skinny-dipping and more sexual pranks. They finally crash at a friend’s apartment, where they get high and drunk again. Later that night, another virgin is victimized by the same swaggering, careless seducer.

But it’s not just boys talking and scoring. There’s also an ultra-frank session, in which the girls discuss in vivid detail their favorite sexual positions. Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) admits to her friends that she lost her virginity to Telly, the only guy she has ever slept with.

Raw and basically plotless, Kids depicts the never-before-seen acts of adolescent seduction, girls’ fear of losing their virginity, boys’ aggressive anxiety to score. AIDS, of course, is a constant threat. It’s especially shocking when Jennie, one of the least promiscuous girls, is diagnosed HIV-positive, based on a one-time experience!

Curiously, the graphic depictions of youngsters fucking and drinking make for an upsetting, but also appealing, film. The most startling and disturbing thing about Kids is its ability to sustain a sense of genuine horror but also voyeuristic fascination with “dubious” subject matter. It’s one thing to read about teenage sex in “Time” magazine; it’s quite another to actually see it onscreen.

I wonder how Clarke, a middle-aged man, managed to capture so accurately the values, speech, and sexual urges of his teenage characters How did he win the trust of his young ensemble No doubt, he was helped by the fresh screenplay written by 19-year old Harmony Korine, a street kid himself, who shows a gutsy, beyond-the-boundaries sensibility. Still, Clarke deserves credit for his intuitive understanding of youth angst–and burning libido.

Kids offers yet another proof of the vibrancy of the independent cinema in tackling difficult issues. Made in the best tradition of cinema verite, this powerful expose might become a cause celebre due to its uncompromising take on kids behavior. It also might become the most controversial film of the year. It remains to be seen what kind of rating Miramax, which is now owned by Disney, is going to get from the MPAA without sacrificing the film’s artistic or moral integrity.

Though direct, the movie takes a nonjudgmental view of urban youngsters today, allowing viewers to make up their own minds about its debatable contents. With hyper pacing and natural, nonactorish performances, Kids makes a strong claim to authenticity. At the same time, the film walks a fine line between its moral intent as a cautionary tale, warning against the disregard for safe sex, and its undeniable voyeuristic, even exploitative elements. As usual, Miramax’s aggressive publicity machine may benefit from the film’s ambiguous texture.

Cinematographer Eric Edwards, who has worked with Gus Van Sant before, uses a restless, mobile camera to give the picture a striking visual quality and a deceptively improvisatory feeling. Kids achieves a remarkable feat: It’s a polished film that still feels like documentary.