Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s “Kids”
Are there more screen-ready characters than young, skateboarding, drug and alcohol-using teenage kids from the streets of HIV-era New York? A strong case could be made for no after watching Larry Clarks 1995 film “Kids.”
When Clark, a successful photographer from Oklahoma, wandered into a drug-filled Washington Square Park in New York City in 1994, he met many kids who skateboarded and hung out in the park, including Leo Fitzpatrick and Justin Pierce, who would later star in “Kids.” There, he also met Harmony Korine, who agreed to write a script about teenage skateboarders navigating sex and drugs in the city. Production began the following year.
Although fully scripted and made with a $1.5 million budget, it is filmed in a convincing documentary style. “Kids” (1995) is a day in the life of Telly and Casper, two sixteen year-old kids who are always looking for the next blunt to smoke, next beer to drink and next girl to have sex with. The movie opens with Telly convincing a young, virgin adolescent to have sex with him. This goal captivates him and throughout the day plans to seduce another virgin that night. From the moment the film starts to role, its clear that Clark is taking the audience on a graphic day-in-the-life.
If the film succeeds, and it does, it is only due to its startlingly accurate account of what being molded by that time and space must have been like as an adolescent. The YouTube comments would sure suggest that the content matter is spot on. Furthermore, the chemistry between lead actors Fitzpatrick and Pierce is that of a mutual authenticity. Their slang and body language is unapologetic and raunchy, and you can’t help but believe they must have really lived it.
When Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) learns she has HIV after having sex only once in her life with Telly a year prior, she spends the day and night tracking him down, going uptown and downtown through parks and clubs. She finds him late that night after he has deflowered another 12-year-old virgin at a party, thereby exposing her to the virus. After Jennie falls into a drug-induced sleep at the party, Casper rapes her and unknowingly exposes himself.
In true Korine fashion, the film has only a loosely linear plot. What anchors the film to time and urgency is Jennie’s quest to tell Telly that he has HIV before he exposes it to any other victims, but most of the film is footage of parties, skateboarding, talking about sex and smoking weed.
The film, which debuted originally with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, is as controversial as it is honest and one can quickly see why. The film offers an ultimately negative view of the characters‘ date rape and senseless violence, but documents it so honestly and unapologetically that it was much too visually shocking for the mainstream theatre. The New York Times called it a “wake-up call to the modern world” of urban youth.
Nearly 20 years later, the film is not only entertaining and meaningful to young people because of its raunchy content but also its characterization of early 1990s Manhattan as a dirty, mysterious playground of debauchery. It is a fixture in the history of New York youth culture that will forever define a generation.