Uncivil Kids

Kids directed by Larry Clark.

Last week I was in the mood for a 90's film so I chose Kids. This is a movie I have seen perhaps four times but not since the 1990s so it was almost like watching a new film. I had forgotten some of the details over the last twenty-odd years.

The first time I saw Kids was when it was released in theatres in July 1995 and I was twenty-two years old. I watched it at the Tara Cinema at the corner of Cheshire Bridge Road and Lavista. This movie was so controversial at the time and still is even today that the Tara was the only theatre in all of metro Atlanta brave enough to screen it. This was common in most cities around the country that if you were lucky enough and your city was big enough then could find only one theatre in your city willing to show this film. The subsequent times that I saw the movie was by renting it on VHS at the long forgotten video rental place in Little Five Points that was named very simply, The Movie Store.

Kids film poster 1995.

After the movie, my first boyfriend and I were given a poster for the movie by a friend of his. It hung in our bedroom at our first apartment at the Ford Factory on Ponce de Leon Avenue. Somewhere during some move we lost that poster. I wish we hadn't lost it.

Kids was the first film directed by photographer Larry Clark and was written in the span of three weeks by Harmony Korine. Korine a nineteen-year old wrote the screenplay which is about a group of teenagers in New York. The boys in the film are skaters, binge drinkers, pot smokers and sexually promiscuous. The female characters in the film exist to serve as conduits for the boys to get their rocks off and other than Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson don't have much of a meaningful presence aside from once scene in which a group of girls sit around talking in an apartment. One criticism I have is how empty and shallow the female characters are in this film.

The opening scene from Kids.

From the opening scene this movie is in your face. The film opens directly and up close as the entire frame is filled with the longest and sweatiest deep kissing I have seen outside of a porno film. That is your introduction to the character of Telly and the film known as Kids. Once your attention has been taken from you there is no surrender for the remainder of the film.

The film takes place in one day and one night. Jennie played by Sevigny is the most innocent character in the film and she spends her time chasing down Telly who has given her HIV so that she can tell him the news. That is the basic plot of the film but there is much more occurring than just that.

This film is dark and gritty much like New York was then but the teenagers, especially the boys, are hedonistic nihilists without a thought or action that doesn't revolve around sex, drugs, theft or skating.  One of the central characters in the film, Telly, a boy nicknamed the "virgin surgeon" for his sexual conquests of virgin females says toward the end of the movie, "fucking is what I love, take that away from me and I really got nothing."

Some have said that this movie was an accurate depiction of teenage life in the early 1990s but I don't think it was this intense. It may have been an accurate depiction of the group of skater boys that director Larry Clark was skating with in Washington Square Park but in the broader population I doubt it. I was a teenager in the early 90s and I remember the skaters with their Vision Street Wear but I don't remember youth culture being so dire and extreme. While the film may not be representative of American teenage experience as a whole in the 90s, the movie is a wonderful visual guide to what styles were popular.

1990s style.

The film is great at being a time capsule for life in the early 90s. The kids spend most of the film wandering the streets of Manhattan. You get to see pay phones on street corners, the fliers of the time, skaters, saggers, Caesar haircuts, AIDS was still a death sentence and largely seen as a gay disease and when you did get over your fear of being tested for HIV you had to wait an agonizing seven days to get your results back. I had my first HIV test at the old Atlanta Gay Center that was in an old house on 12th Street in Midtown the same year as this movie and I remember the seven day wait.

Keith Haring mural at the Carmine Street pool.

Speaking of HIV and AIDS one the most vital artists of that time, Keith Haring, had his work make a cameo in the film. Haring was a muralist who painted his work all over the world and designed the cover for the Red Hot And Dance AIDS benefit album among many other things. Haring's mural painted in 1987 at the Carmine Street public pool in New York can be seen when the kids sneak into the pool after hours. Haring died in 1990 of AIDS before the film was made but the mural is still there today. You can see much better photos of it and read the story behind it here.

The 1990s were a period and really the last decade that I refer to as "the big quiet." This was life without the modern infestation of cell phones and before broad adoption of the internet. Life was still about the moment then and not everything was captured on cell phones and then shared around the globe in seconds. We had lives then that were to be lived in the moment and we weren't concerned about proving we existed because we knew we did. We were so much less self-aware, self-involved and narcissistic than society in the 2000s. It was to me, "the big quiet" and it was a better time. The whole way we see the world now and how we exist in it has changed. Now everyone thinks they are celebrities, models and living as if they are actors and their entire life is a movie.

Skaters beat a man in the film.

In one scene in the film one of the main characters, Casper, and his fellow crew of skaters brutally beat a man in Washington Square Park. The entire group of youths, maybe twenty or so, stomp and beat a man bloody and leave him laying on the ground. Later they wonder if they killed the guy. Today you would have 200 cell phone videos and ten angles of CCTV videos of the beating and it would be a viral event consuming an entire news-cycle for three days. There would be nonstop coverage and talking heads moralizing about this fight on the street in New York that in the grand scheme of life only matters to the man that was beaten and the other people taking part in it. The outrage would consume television and the internet when the event only matters to a handful of people in reality. Marches, rallies and vigils would be organized on social media to fuel this outrage. In the 1990s we did not get so worked up over everything and we went on with our lives; it did not mean that we didn't care it just meant that we could keep a healthier perspective on life.

I may like the time period of this film but I cannot say that I like this film. I also cannot say I dislike it because I don't dislike it. There are parts of this film that I think are important and good. I think the film is important because it dared to be unconventional in its depiction of teenagers and their sex lives. It was serious about showing a more realistic image of teen sexuality that was not pretty and glowing like how most films treat the subject.

Chloë Sevigny in Kids.

Some of the acting was very good especially when you consider that all of the actors were novices and were found on the street. Only Chloë Sevigny in the role of Jennie was semi-known in New York for modeling, appearing in a Sonic Youth video for Sugar Kane (a good song by the way) and had been profiled in The New Yorker magazine. Kids was the launching pad too for Rosario Dawson and she's phenomenal in this and I wish she'd had a bigger role.

Justin Pierce as Casper in Kids.

The role of Casper was played by Justin Pierce. He had no acting experience, was a real skater from the streets and had a troubled life. Yet, his acting was the strongest and most natural in the film. He convinced me he was Casper and his role was complex as the sidekick to Telly, displaying caring to the legless man on the subway to the violence of the beating in the park, some humorous moments and the most bothersome scene in the film - the rape on the sofa. The rape scene involving Casper is so uncomfortable, unfortunate and unnecessary and it is one of the reasons I cannot like this film. Justin Pierce after Kids would go on to make other movies but only five years after the release of the film in 2000 he would commit suicide by hanging in a room at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Harold Hunter in Kids.

Harold Hunter was also another skate boarder turned actor for his role as Harold in the film. Harold became well known for his skate boarding and would continue to act after Kids. He also met an untimely demise and died of a heart attack from cocaine in 2006 at the age of 31.

Telly from Kids.

Leo Fitzpatrick who plays the role of Telly would also continue acting after Kids. Telly is the central character in which the framework for this film is built upon. He is the heavily accented street kid that has one passion in life and that is taking the virginity of teen girls. He has HIV but his status is unknown to him and he is the person that infected the character of Jennie in the film. He also likely infects two other girls in the film that he sleeps with. He is a ruthless character that only exists to feed his hard on.

"Kids was a fictional work by a creepy man who gets his kicks by hanging out with teens living on the edge and occasionally tipping over," - San Francisco Examiner, September 24, 1995.


"Kids carries a built-in fuck you factor, as well as more than a whiff of radical chic," The Village Voice, July 25, 1995.

As controversial and daring this film was in 1995 it would be even more so today since society has become more sensitive and safe. I do not believe you could make this film scene for scene today and get it released to theatres. The outcry which existed in 1995 would be outrage today. Yes, most critics killed this movie in the 1990s, Disney balked at releasing it, the censors gave it an NC-17 rating which was the replacement for the X rating and much to the director's credit he refused to cut the movie and decided to release it unrated. People were quoted in newspaper articles calling the movie "evil" and "pornography" but in today's society public outrage on social media and television would place enormous pressure on theatres and online streaming services to not show it. We have become a censored society and that's a shame. I believe art such as film should not be censored and it is healthy if art challenges our beliefs and perspectives - good art should do just that. This movie was not a documentary after all and it was not illegal.

People project onto this film what they want to believe. You can claim that it was a wake up call for adults as to what the teenagers of that time were doing and the dangers facing them. You can also claim that the film glorifies the sex, the drugs, the violence and what some may consider deviant, anti-social behavior. The movie makes no moral judgements on what is taking place in the film. This movie is like a reflection from a mirror being held up by the director and writer on society and this is what it witnessed.

One could argue that it promotes homophobia in the scene where two gay men are harassed by the skater kids in the park but that scene was realistic in the 1990s and still is today in some places. It can be argued that that scene provides an example of gay life and the threats that gays face. I don't suspect that scene is there in the film to promote homophobia but neither am I certain what the intent is either. I can only project my own perspective onto the film because of the lack of moral direction in it.

As the character Casper wakes up from his stupor at the end of the film he acknowledges the camera and asks, "Jesus Christ, what happened?" Through all the blur of sex, drugs and violence at the end of the film the viewer has to answer that question for themselves.

The credits roll to the song Spoiled performed by Sebadoh with the lyrics, "spoiled children soon to fall, freedom is the lie we live, we will wait for tragedy, and scatter helpless to the fire, sorry for ourselves, sorry for the things we've seen, no one cries for help, waiting for the fire." Perhaps the entire truth of this dark movie is right there in that song.

Even in the span of twenty-four years since its release, Kids is not a film that has been tamed by time. It may be even more daring and perplexing today and that is a sign of important work. I recommend watching it if you've never seen it or you have not seen it in a years.