Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, June 7, 2013

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (1995)

Some filmmakers court controversy their entire careers. Larry Clark might be one of the most controversial filmmakers to ever live. All of his movies revolve around young people partaking in drugs, violence, and wanton sexuality, with few punches pulled. He is frequently criticized for his obsession with teenagers' bodies, which he has never been shy about showing. However, his movies are also, rightfully, lauded for their realism and keen sense of time and place. I may, perhaps, be creating some controversy of mine own by coming out as a Larry Clark defender even if, as this report card will reveal, his career is highly uneven.

1. Kids

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.

Aside from Clark’s docu-drama direction, another factor contributes to the movie’s naturalistic, improvised feel. None of the actors in the film were professionals. They were all actual kids scooped up off of the streets of New York City. Leo Fitzpatrick and Justin Pierce as Telly and Casper, the main boys, are both despicable and unlikable. Both discuss sex endlessly and say many crude, disturbing things. Both of the scenes in which Telly seduce girls with blatant, obvious lies are painful to watch. Aside from his near-pedophilic desire for virginal girls, Telly lies to his mother and steals her medication. Casper is probably even more obnoxious. He shouts homophobic slurs to a gay couple that wanders by. He degrades into a sloppy drunk at the end in a moment that goes on forever and are almost unwatchable in their crassness. The movie’s most shocking moment is when the two boys and their gang beat a random man nearly to death.

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.

The movie, for the most part, resists Larry Clark’s trademark eroticism. There’s plenty of casual nudity and long sequences of young people in various states of undress. However, it’s not “fun” or sexy. The three sex scenes are far from titillating. They are deeply unpleasant, due to how young the girls look and how ruthless Telly treats them. A scene of a young boy stripping down in front of a group of girls and dancing around pushes way past good taste to the point where the audience is as uncomfortable as the girls must be. Though it’s easy to read into the numerous sequences of shirtless boys lounging around each other, only one scene in the movie pushes towards exploitative sexuality. Even then, the scene of two girls in a swimming pool making out quickly goes dark when one of the boys just about forces himself on them. A shade of dread and unpleasantness hangs over the entire film. The sad finale plays out in an inevitable fashion.

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]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

I saw your posts on my feed and my brain went "Oh God... he's doing Larry Clark." I await the reviews to Teenage Caveman and Wassup Rockers... eagerly? No, no that's not the word.

I saw Kids senior year in high school. I was randomly invited by some jocks to kill some time for a couple of hours. We ditched biology. It's a fond memory. But nothing to do with the film, I realize.