CR Movie Club: Kids

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This is CR Movie Club. Each week in quarantine, we’re revisiting a classic film from yesteryear to explore why we loved it in the first place and how it holds up over time.

The rawness of the wayward New York City teens depicted in Kids is so candid that upon the movie’s 1995 release, many thought it was a documentary–and they were appalled. Centered on a group of city youth who spend a summer’s day indulging in drugs, alcohol, and sex, the movie was accused of containing child obscenity and “nihilistic pornography,” and was dubbed a “wake-up call to the modern world.” While indeed a work of fiction, Kids’ sense of realism is in large part thanks to the novice team behind the film and their proximity to the youth culture within it.

With a cast full of adolescent actors plucked from the city’s streets, a script written by then-19 year old Harmony Korine (Gummo, Spring Breakers), and a directorial debut for renowned photographer Larry Clark, the project was riddled with film amateurs committed to telling an authentic story. Even before Kids came to fruition, Clark had immersed himself in the skate culture at Washington Square Park, camera in hand, learning how to skateboard at 50 years old so he could keep up with the youth and wasn’t an outsider looking in. This eventually led to him meeting Korine, who was a student at New York University and saw Clark in the park one day. Korine handed the photographer a VHS copy of a movie he made in high school with his phone number taped to the top. Clark ended up calling him back and telling him he had an idea for a movie about a kid who loves to deflower girls. Korine, who was living in his grandmother’s basement in Queens, wrote the script in a week, weaving stories based on his and his friends’ own lives into the movie.

Besides the fact that many of the characters reflected people Korine knew, having the film written by a teen and cast with kids who were already a part of the youth subculture was what made the film so believable. For Leo Fitzpatrick, who plays Telly, the main character who is a self-described “virgin surgeon,” the first day of shooting Kids was the first day he had ever acted. It was also Rosario Dawson’s debut and one of Chloë Sevingy’s first acting stints, as well. Several of the characters–including Telly’s reckless friend Casper (Justin Pierce) and weed-smoking skater Harold (Harold Hunter)–ended up being played by the boys Korine based them off. For Pierce and Hunter, their real-life destructive proclivities caught up to them, and both unfortunately died young.

While the coming of age story has met criticism for its adult themes–the movie opens with Telly and a pubescent girl engaging in sex and ends with Casper raping Jennie (played by Sevingy) at a house party–the film shows that they aren’t so adult after all. Revealing the explicit behavior that goes on in teens’ lives, Kids creates a vivid picture of the invincibility of adolescence. Without rules, parental supervision, or even consent, the kids go through their day jaunting around the city smoking weed, skateboarding, drinking forties, getting in fights, trespassing private property, and having unprotected sex. The only consequence presented falls on Jennie, who learns at the beginning of the movie that she is HIV positive after only having sex once, with Telly. She spends the rest of the film trying to find him (these were pre-cell phone, pre-internet days), but never gets the chance to tell him. (According to Korine, her plot line is the only one completely fabricated. “It was a device that propelled it. We didn’t know anything about this disease other than that we didn’t want to get it,” the screenwriter said.)

Released during a year that also introduced teen movies such as Clueless and Empire Records, Kids veered far from what other youth-centric entertainment was offering. Because of the depictions of teen sex, violence, and drug use, the movie was given an NC-17 rating and faced distribution hurdles because of it. Miramax initially paid .5 million to distribute the film, but because the company was owned by Walt Disney Co., it couldn’t release an NC-17 movie and ultimately had to start a separate company in order to release the now un-rated movie. It is unlikely that a film like Kids could ever be made in the post Me Too era.

For the cast, however, the explicit behavior wasn’t out of the ordinary. “This was kids being kids,” Dawson once reflected.

The biggest shock for the teen talent was the moral outrage the film caused. Fitzpatrick and Korine had both shared that they found the reactions to the film puzzling, and that what was in the movie didn’t seem crazy to them. “Everything about Kids seemed highly normal to me,” Korine said. “It was just the first time that it had ever been seen on screen.”

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Kids remains the antiheroic coming of age story for those who want a glimpse inside the realities of growing up in gritty ‘90s New York City. A hallmark of skate culture, the Supreme-clad teens in the movie (many of whom were just wearing their own clothes) were part of the fabric of the urban landscape–so much so, that the streetwear brand now frequented by hypebeasts released a Kids capsule collection in 2015 and recently streamed the film for free on its website.

Beyond street and skate culture, it’s a movie for the outcasts, the teens whose romanticized idea of adolescence is equated with rebellion. While underground subcultures are arguably nonexistent today, with everything accessible on social media or the internet, Kids holds up as a universally relatable tale of misunderstood and misguided youth.

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