Larry Clark’s ‘Kids’ (1995)

19Feb09

Like Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp or Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Kids is one of those movies free of monsters, blood, and gore that is absolutely terrifying. In fact, Kids is like the Thirteen of the last decade, a wake-up call to youth and adults alike of how some adolescents lead their lives. 'Kids' posterThese kids are portrayed as self-involved, amoral, and hedonistic, willing to beat a man nearly to death out of boredom with little afterthought and even less remorse. The film garnered as much controversy as critical acclaim upon its release, earning an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, due to its depiction of teenage drug use, explicit sex acts, date rape, and graphic violence, and director Larry Clark films this content in a very matter-of-fact, documentary-like manner. I’ve noticed from reviews I’ve read that some people have mistaken this tone as Clark condoning this behavior, but those who draw that conclusion may have seen the film but didn’t really watch it.

Kids depicts 24 hours in the lives of New York teenagers. For two of the main characters, Telly and Casper, it’s a seemingly average day, but for Jennie the day is anything but. On first glance, Telly probably would seem harmless to both girls and their mothers: he is pasty, skinny, and a little nerdy-looking. But Telly uses his innocuous exterior to hide the fact that he is an adept liar, mostly employing his skills to sleep with young virgins, whom he prefers because he doesn’t like to use condoms. During the course of the movie, he seduces two young girls and brutally deflowers them, completely ignoring their discomfort, health, and well-being in his unswerving pursuit of pleasure.

One of Telly’s many conquests, Jennie discovers she has HIV when she goes with a friend for moral support to get tested. Since she has only had sex with Telly, she knows that he is also infected and spends her day trying to tell him and to save his next partner, a 13-year-old girl named Darcy. A shy girl, Jennie seems to have become immersed in a world of which she wants no part. She is constantly being coerced by boys to do things she does not want to do.

Like Telly, Casper also pursues self-gratification, spending the entire day drunk, high, or both and always looking for his next fix. Because he lacks much of his own, Casper envies Telly’s sexual experience, oblivious to the moral repugnance of how Telly obtains it. Even though he cruelly attacks a man with little provocation, Casper (unlike Telly) still shows a spark of humanity, giving a stolen peach to a little girl and his last few coins to a legless man in the subway. Even as he rapes Jennie, he misguidedly assures her in an almost tender way that, “It’s just [him],” as he takes advantage of her in her disoriented state.

Kids could have easily been called Boys. Though girls certainly play a part in the proceedings, the film ultimately provides a detailed portrait of these teenage boys’ lifestyle and explores how they become indoctrinated into a culture that turns them into sociopaths. All of the conversation between two or more boys in this movie has something to do with sex. Young boys, nine- or ten-years-old, are grilled by older boys on their sexual experiences, ridiculed if they admit or even insinuate that they have none. They are audience to older teens’ and early twenty-somethings’ discussions of sexual conquests and assessments of girls’ attitudes toward sex, all of which encourages them to understand that masculinity is completely tied up in having as much sex with as many girls as possible and that girls are merely objects with which to have sex. During the few minutes that they are not talking about sex, the boys talk about drugs and alcohol, which they get with ease from stealing or from older acquaintances, and the booze and drugs are then passed down to even younger boys. All of the posturing, proclamations of sexual potency and experience, denial of homosexuality through the harassment of gay men, all of it is for the sake of other males. The boys spend more time with their shirts off around each other than around girls. They have created a culture in which they constantly have to prove their virile heterosexuality lest they fall victim to the mob mentality that nearly kills one man in the film.

When interacting with the boys, most of the girls seem like guests, and sometimes more like prisoners, of this different culture. In fact, Jennie’s search for Telly to tell him about being HIV-positive could also be seen as a journey into the treacherous underbelly of the boys’ world. She starts in the relative safety of a friends’ bedroom full of other young girls talking about their sexual experiences. In comparison to the boys’ rap session about sex, the girls seem less like they are performing a codified sexuality for each other and less like they are keeping each other’s femininity in check. Jennie says that she has only had sex with one guy and Ruby admits to more sexually promiscuous behavior than the other girls. Ruby is teased a little, but neither girl is humiliated or rebuked in the way that the boys keep each other’s sexuality under control. Ruby and Jennie are able to take action to take control of their sexuality by going to a health clinic together, but this trip precipitates Jennie’s traverse into Boys’ World, which slowly takes away her power to choose. During her first interaction with a male in the film, the boy tries to coax Jennie into coming up to his apartment, his sexual interest apparent in his voice coming through the intercom, but Jennie, separated from him, is able to say no with relative ease. In her first face-to-face contact with a male, a middle-aged taxi driver makes demands of Jennie in a way females of the film do not, asking if he could cheer her up so that her pretty face would not look so sad. His comments suggest that rather than having a real concern for her well-being, the driver wants her to stop being sad so that she would be better to look at. Her journey only grows darker and each encounter with boys more sinister as another harmless-looking, nerdy boy feeds her Special K. She finally catches up with Telly as he is deflowering Darcy and, defeated, leaves them to their business without saying a word. Having failed to save Darcy, Jennie passes out on a couch only to be raped by Casper in her drug-induced stupor. In the boys’ world, girls are victims, objects that are acted upon and incapable of action.

To fit with the documentary tone, the actors were picked by Clark for their naturalness and had limited, if any, acting experience. All of the actors succeed in giving very candid performances, and probably for many of the supporting actors there is little distinction between where their character stops and their true self begins. Of the cast, Chloe Sevigny has catapulted to the biggest stardom, and Rosario Dawson has achieved similar success. Leo Fitzpatrick and Justin Pierce, who probably receive the most screen time, have not been as lucky, though Fitzpatrick has done regular work over the years, most recently in television. Pierce sadly committed suicide after making a dozen or so films to little commercial success. I don’t know if Sevigny shows any more talent in Kids than her two fellow leads, but her look is certainly more “studio-ready” than Fitzpatrick and Pierce, which might explain why she was more quickly cast in lead roles. Even though Dawson appears in maybe 10 minutes of the film, she really does distinguish herself from dozens of supporting actors, with the energy and intrepidness that she brings to every role on full display.

Even though I am just now seeing Kids for the first time, I have owned its soundtrack for years because I’m a big Lou Barlow fan. One of Barlow’s many side projects, Folk Implosion provides a lot of the “score” and it’s some of Barlow’s best work. The official soundtrack also includes tracks from Daniel Johnston, Lo Down, Slint, and one of Barlow’s other bands, Sebadoh. It’s an excellent collection of lo-fi tunes from the early nineties. In addition to these great songs, the film’s soundtrack also features songs by the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, and other New York hip-hop groups from that period.

All kids are not like these Kids, but this perhaps heightened (perhaps not in some cases) portrayal of youth culture makes very astute observations about how gender roles become codified and reinforced and about adolescent culture in general. As uncomfortable of an experience as it might be, parents should watch this movie with their teen-aged kids. The discussion it would provoke could change people’s lives.

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