Directed by: Larry Clark
Premise: The film follows a group of New York teenagers through a twenty-four hour period, focusing on a young woman (Chloë Sevigny) who discovers that she has contracted HIV and a young man (Leo Fitzpatrick) who is obsessed with deflowering as many virgins as he can.
What Works: Kids was the debut film of director Larry Clark and it remains his pièce de résistance. Clark’s pictures, such as Bully, Wassup Rockers, and the unreleased Ken Park deal with youths living hedonistic, wayward lifestyles in which parents or other authority figures are absent. At the time of Kids’ release in 1995 the film caused a sharply divided critical reaction and it was released to theaters unrated to avoid an NC-17 classification from the MPAA. The initial outrage at the film is easy to understand. In the course of a day, the teens drink alcohol, get high, shoplift, fight, and have unprotected sex. Although it was scripted, Kids is shot in a documentary style with naturalistic performances by actors who were unknown at that time. As a result, Kids has a gritty and realistic feel to it, which makes it all the more uncomfortable to watch. But despite its audacity, the overriding characteristic of Kids is its honesty. Because it is shot and acted so naturally, the film never feels less like it is putting on a show in an effort to merely shock. This film creates a grim vision of what is, or at least what the filmmakers believe to the be case. Compared to many recent sex comedies, which actually go much further in their explicitness, Kids is tamer or at least par for the course but for one important difference: the film does not glorify its teen delinquency. It is difficult to imagine anyone watching this film and reaching the conclusion that they would want to be one of these characters. Nor does the film overtly condemn the teens. In a curious way, the filmmakers seek some level of empathy by inviting the viewer into the world of these teenage characters and asking us to observe their values and behaviors. The resounding emotion of Kids’ conclusion is not disdain, disgust, or arousal but sadness. The vision that the film creates is one in which intellectual or emotional consciousness is not possible, love is absent, and the only substitute is the pursuit of fleeting pleasures of sex and drugs, and even that comes with a terrible price as discovered by the young woman with AIDS.
What Doesn’t: Kids is a tough film and its portrayal of youth is very extreme. Although this may be the experience of some teenagers it is certainly not the experience of them all. That does not diminish the veracity of the film but audiences should hesitate before applying this film to everyone under the age of twenty. Viewers should also keep in mind that this was a picture of its time. Made in the mid-1990s, the cast of Kids have no cell phones and exist in a culture with its own point of reference. The film hasn’t aged too much, but as an independent film of the mid-90s it has a certain grain to its look that is rougher than the more polished pictures of the digital age.
DVD extras: Trailer.
Bottom Line: Kids remains important as a period piece. Like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Larry Clark’s Kids was part of the explosion of independent films that shook up the Hollywood establishment in the 1990s. It’s hard to imagine this film being picked up by a major distributor or even getting made now although the influence of Kids can be seen (although sifted through a corporate colander) in MTV’s programing like Jersey Shore and Skins.
Episode: #380 (March 18, 2012)