In the mid-nineties, the indie film scene exploded. Low budget filmmakers came out of nowhere and made a huge splash. Quentin Tarrantino with “Reservoir Dogs.” Robert Rodriguez with “El Mariachi.” Kevin Smith with “Clerks.” And, finally, Larry Clark with “Kids.” While those other films were exciting genre riffs or chatty comedies, and led all the filmmakers to wide commercial success, “Kids” is a depressing, aggravating, naturalistic, occasionally powerful, and certainly memorable docu-drama.
The film is nearly plotless. Telly is a teenage scumbag obsessed with sex. In particular, he is obsessed with bedding virgins, fooling gullible young girls, some of them very young, in to having their first sexual experience with him. Unbeknownst to him, he is also HIV-positive. This is discovered when one of his victims, Jennie, gets tested on a whim. She spends the rest of the film grappling with this information while also trying to track Telly down. Otherwise, the movie simply follows a day in the life of these teens, as well as their various friends. They swear endlessly, steal, drink, pop pills, smoke dope, engage in violence, party themselves senseless, and generally hang out and talk.
Clark’s artistic background is in photography. “Kids” is shot in a gritty, naturalistic fashion and, at moments, feels like a documentary. Clark frequently points the camera at the kids and just lets them go. Long takes are cut up with almost invisible edits. A scene of Telly and Casper walking around the city and talking, as well as the ending party sequence, play out in real time. If the movie’s goal was to put the audience in the mind-set and world-view of these characters, it is wildly successful.
Yet the film resists painting the boys are soulless monsters. In an odd moment, they both pause to admire a street performer’s accordion-assisted rendition of “Danny Boy.” A few minutes later, Casper gives money to a legless beggar on the subway. A long scene where the two boys undress in front of each other recalls the latent homoeroticism present in many young, male friendships. The girls are generally much more fleshed out then the boys. They express themselves in clearer fashions. Though both genders are vulgar and sex-obsessed, the girls lack the macho bravado and posturing seen in the boys. Jennie is the soul of the movie, the only true victim and the only one seemingly aware of the consequences of her actions. This is best seen in two heart-breaking cab rides the character goes on.
Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson would go on to become known, successful actors. It’s easy to see why. Both give the best performances in the film. Dawson’s Ruby is promiscuous (though not in any sort of comparative way) but never lets that get in the way of her innate likable. Sevigny carries weight and pain on her face. Near the end, the film cuts from the debauchery of the young party to elderly New Yorkers going about their days. As if to suggests, these are the lives our protagonists will never get to live. The final shot of the film even shows one of the previously unaware characters seemingly having a moment of clarity, though it’s kept ambiguous.
So what is the film’s intention? The script is laced with ironic elements. A room full of boys discusses the opposite sex’s opinion on various intimate issues. Cut to: A room full of girls discussing the same topics with very different opinions. There are other small, notable moments. When Telly and Casper are walking down the street, discussing sex frankly, you notice the looks of disgust on the passing adults’ faces. Most implicitly, the movie never provides any explanation for why the kids are so fucked up. The parents are clueless, non-presences but none are shown as abusive. Everyone lives in near poverty but this isn’t focused on much either. Perhaps “Kids” greatest attribute is that it doesn’t preach. Though it’s widely interpreted as a movie about “what is wrong with these kids today,” I honestly don’t think that’s the case.
Instead, “Kids” is a mood piece. It places the audience in the world of these lost, sad, misguided young people. Clark is sympathetic and rarely seems judgmental. The movie is a painful, distressing, and above all else frank discussion of a world that undeniably exists. By the end of the film, the characters are burnt out and so is the viewer. “Kids” isn’t easy viewing. It’s almost uniformly uncomfortable. However, it succeeds one-hundred percent at what it sets out to do. And, on an up note, the soundtrack is excellent. [Grade: B]