If American adults are still capable of being shocked by the behavior of teenagers, then Larry Clark's Kids is the movie that will shock them. The New York City teens we meet here for one harrowing 24-hour period talk dirty. They pursue sex and drugs with casual single-mindedness. They lie and steal with no apparent pangs of conscience. And at the all-night party that closes the proceedings, dozens of drunken, stoned, half-dressed teens pass out, heaped together like casualties on a battlefield, while one bleary survivor dispiritedly rapes a girl as she lies unconscious in a chair.
Meanwhile a skinny, brazen kid named Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is busy spreading the AIDS virus -- when he's not kicking the family cat or spitting on the dining room table in the apartment of a fourteen-year-old he's just seduced and abandoned.
Obviously, this is not the stuff of Father Knows Best (Dad is nowhere to be found) or even Rebel Without a Cause (there's no hint of James Dean glamour), and the movie's brute force already has produced a major flap. Originally financed by Miramax, a subsidiary of squeaky-clean Walt Disney, Kids appeared to be in trouble when the MPAA threatened to saddle it with a restrictive NC-17 rating. But commerce marched onward: Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein simply formed a new company, Excalibur Films (which is not a signatory to the ratings system), paid $3.5 million for the acquisition, and released the film unrated. Predictably, the brothers accompanied their slick marketing move with the usual claims about the movie's "uncompromising vision" and its importance to the future of Western civilization.
At bottom Kids is all gritty sensation -- uncompromising or not. First-time director Clark, born and raised in Oklahoma, comes to filmmaking from photography, where he indulged his tastes for junkie lowlife and frank carnality. A whiff of sociology emanates from his photographs, and from his film, too, which employs a flat, mock-documentary style to survey the raw lusts and go-to-hell excesses of teenagers who have been cut loose from the moorings of family and morality and set adrift on a sea of trash culture and cheap thrills.
Kids' cautionary tale about AIDS has about it the air of a junior high health class, which could be meant, I suppose, to offset the film's relentless mood of nihilism and depression. You don't have to be Bob Dole or Tipper Gore to lament the way these children -- particularly the calculating, soulless boys -- bluster and blunder their ways dangerously through life. This group portrait of adolescence reveals not a rite of passage but an entrapment in purgatory, where neither love nor any other authentic emotion is welcome.
Written by 21-year-old first-timer Harmony Korine, the screenplay is understandably wobbly, and Clark betrays the still photographer's customary problems with narrative. But there's an undeniable, deep-down power in Kids that not only gets into your soul but, you might say, grabs you right in the lower regions. It comes, I believe, from the scary familiarity the movie's young, largely nonprofessional cast seems to have with the depredations of life in the streets, with running games, with hardening the outer shell against the world.
Clark plucked some of these distinctly un-actorish actors right off their skateboards in New York's Washington Square Park, and the boasts they make within the movie's framework, the vulnerabilities they try so hard to conceal, the rituals they can't help repeating, are sometimes so convincing that we can't quite believe we're watching fiction up there. This multiethnic, multiracial cast makes you believe it's already gone the whole route for real.
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As the self-proclaimed "virgin surgeon" Telly, young Fitzpatrick's thin bravado and synthetic charm can be unnerving, and Justin Pierce gives the slightly baffled Casper a kind of brittle, unlikable defiance, whether he knows it or not. The girls A Chloe Sevigny's devastated Jennie and Rosario Dawson's big-talking Ruby come to mind A still have a touch of adolescent innocence in them, but for the most part they seem like old hands, at once exhilarated by thrill-seeking and already defeated by life before they're even old enough to vote. Yakira Peguero's Darcy, slated as Telly's next conquest, has the freshness of a baby about her, but in Clark's cheerless scheme of things, she, too, is about to be dragged down.
Kids is a powerful, if sometimes gratuitous, view of teen angst in a world where parents are conspicuously absent or ineffectual. But the New York setting, I believe, diminishes some of that power. Clark has said in interviews that he means his locale and his kids to be universal, but many may not see it that way, if only for the fact that so much of the U.S. irrationally regards New York City as the epicenter of all that is dirty, corrupt, and mutant. Setting the film there sends a contradictory message: Don't worry, Omaha and Philadelphia, you aren't the Big Apple.
This complaint aside, Kids is a frightening movie about teenage life and teenage disorder that probably will make grownups squirm, while kids nod their heads in recognition. Once again the right-wingers may condemn it, and the whole ratings controversy smells like a scam to me, but we should still be thankful that the pill hasn't been sugarcoated this time around. Certainly, it's difficult to forget the film's most indelible scene, in which four boys, all ten or eleven years old, sit crammed together on a couch, shirtless, sharing a joint, trying out for themselves the tough talk of their teenage elders.
The virus of alienation is spreading, Clark and Korine are telling us; it is about to engulf another lost generation. And with that realization we feel the movie's most enduring chill.