‘Kids’: The Film I Wanted To See But Was Extremely Nervous To Watch

The film Kids is the cinematic New York legend that for years I didn’t know what to make of it…until I finally saw it. It was released during the summer of 1995 on July 28. I was eight years old and very much a girl who wasn’t sheltered in the sense of I not being aware of the pull of the streets, but in having no business in hanging out with such a crowd or scene, I still only observed it through popular culture and the few peers that felt they no other choice. Even this, in my docile-looking neighborhood in Massachusetts, occurred often enough.

I had heard about the film extensively through a mortified ’90s press (that corny quote of it being a “wake-up call to the world” via The New York Times stuck. And its director Larry Clark was accused of his work bordering child pornography). Sometime in 1997, I remember seeing the VHS at Record Town in Boston’s Copley Mall. I would pick it up and just stare at the “NR” (Not Rated) rating and the mirage of grungy-dressed kids and one with a skateboard. (I debated whether I should’ve asked my mother to buy it for me. I figured she wouldn’t have had any idea what it was anyway). In 1999, Dr. Dre asked Eminem in “Guilty Conscience”: “You ever see that one movie Kids?” (I recognized that at 12, I still hadn’t yet). And years later, its inclusion in a sentence in the It-memoir Smashed where the author Koren Zailckas, recalls the scene where Chloe Sevigny‘s character Jennie is unconscious at a house party and raped by an intoxicated Casper, played by the late Justin Pierce. (Coincidentally, Smashed was published the year of Kids‘ 10th anniversary). That last reminder of “the most notorious teen film ever” shook me to the core on whether or not I really wanted to see this film. I wished had my copy of Smashed with me to inscribe the exact quote here, because Zailckas was so dramatic in her description to readers. While she wasn’t exactly inaccurate, I for one couldn’t help but think “gross.” What the hell else was actually shown in this film? I also remained curious about how someone like Rosario Dawson, whom I first saw in He Got Game and would later follow her career into ones of my favorites Sin City, ended up starring in this subversive, lower Manhattan waterloo?

When I finally watched it, can you believe that I viewed it for the first time on YouTube? The now Internet odyssey was only a few years old and I believe what happened is that Kids again reappeared in my mind and I went in search of clips and found the whole thing. It was night-time. I had nothing to do. I took and deep breath, probably said something along the lines of “Lawd Jesus” and pressed play. YouTube then and now remains a place where any of us can find obscure or cherised childhood footage from film, TV and cartoons. It really is the Kim’s Video and Music of the social media age. A film like Kids may never be on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime. But because it is an independent film touchstone, it should be readily available (a controversial thought, but its 20th anniversary this year confirms it’s a film that matters in the spectrum of New York stories, real or imagined, captured on film).

In the end, it wasn’t as “bad” as I had drawn it out to be. I definitely cringed, but not as much as reviews had basically trained me for. (Read Roger Ebert’s excellent bit on the movie here). It was graphic, profane and since filmed documentary style, had the same kind of grimy, dampy, watercolor ambiance of Spike Lee‘s Clockers, also released in 1995 and another unflinching take of ’90s New York City (specifically Brooklyn).

When it was funny, it seemed accidental, whether courtesy of an actor’s tone or lisp or the undeniable absurdity of lines like “Having a virgin suck ya dick. That’s so basic man. So easy”. (Another unfathomable line and gesture from Telly, the antagonistic lead, played by Leo Fitzpatrick, also telling Casper to “Take a whiff.”) Watching the film now, I still find myself bringing a hand to my forehead in exasperation and busting out sporadic fits of chuckles. So this was real life as a New York teen if you weren’t an NYPL bookworm?

I especially perked up when I saw Dawson and Sevigny appear on-screen amongst other actresses in what would be a ten minute back and forth, trading stories segment of the guys and girls in Kids talking about the good, the bad and realities of sexual experiences. This is still my favorite part of the movie and I was curious to see how screenwriter Harmony Korine wrote from the perspective of teenage girls, considering he also created such a terrible person like Telly. From there, the literal day in the life of temerarious young teens only got more voyeuristic for me.

You may be surprise that it’s taken me six paragraphs to mention that the focal core of Kids, that also added to why it could’ve been categorized as a horror flick is that Telly’s character, who has sex with virgins to avoid using condoms, unknowingly has AIDS. Remember this was filmed in 1994 and released in 1995. AIDS, stemming from the 1980s, was the Black death of the 20th century. The film never explained exactly how Telly contacted the disease but it is its horrendous, inconvenient truth. (Sidenote: I had convinced myself that anyone girl that willingly slept with Telly was just trying to get the first time over with because…why? I mean those rabbit-fucking scenes of his gave me major sour puss facial expressions). In the end, after that assault scene by Casper (which I was pissed about because I actually found Pierce to be cute), Telly declares after having sex with Darcy, another virgin, another young person that has contacted AIDS from him, that sex was all he had. After that statement, watching Kids was a moment, but I had enough.

I would eventually own the DVD for the boys vs. girls scene alone. The film still quietly fascinates for a number of reasons that are important, unforgettable and unique. On the eve of its 20th anniversary this July, the cast, Korine and Clark have spoken to media outlets like the Guardian, Vice and Rolling Stone, and all agreed that the way Kids was filmed could not have happened today. The filmmakers got away with a lot shit in making this film. From the opening scene with Telly and the girl he deflowers that looks ten and was likely no older than 14, to the sometimes coarse dialogue and visceral backdrop of New York, including the skateboard get-together at Washington Square Park where the boys are smoking blunts and “engage” in a brutal fight in the daytime, and the real-life club kids based underground party of NASA, old New York from the lives of detached teenagers was immortalized. There’s no denying that if made today, child labor laws would’ve been on the production and distribution’s ass (which did happen in ’95), and certain humiliating or questionable incidents would’ve been Snapchatted. As Korine said: “This was pre-cell phone.”

It was unique because of how the film’s script and casting came about. Korine and Sevigny were regulars of the downtown NY’s youth, with Sevigny, a Connecticut native, becoming at that time a favored and budding iconoclast of fashion and style. Korine himself was discovered by Clark, who was known to photograph young people in idle yet provocative settings. Dawson was seen on her Lower East Side stoop and was asked to read for the role of Ruby. The casting of its supporting characters were fulfilled by actors just as memorable and true to the city. No one was a professional actor and it was everyone’s first role. Two of the cast members have passed away since 1995. As mentioned, Pierce committed suicide in Las Vegas in 2000. (He had won an Independent Spirit Award for playing Casper). Harold Hunter was also featured prominently in Kids. He kept his real name and portrayed a friend of Telly and Casper’s. Before and after Kids he was a respected, well-liked, professional skateboarder, but died from a cocaine related heart attack in 2006. Today, the The Harold Hunter Foundation exists in his memory. From his New York Times eulogy, it was revealed that he grew up on the same block as Dawson in the Lower East Side.

Looking back and having visited for over a decade and now living in New York, I can say that the film was uncomfortably honest in how not all, some of New York’s young people really grew up and even into their 20s exhibited. Plenty of born and raised New Yorkers did validate themselves through sexual activity. And I know this through the stories I’ve been told by people I used to be friends and have dated. The characters and episodes of Kids you could definitely find in middle America, but specific to Kids’ script as an anything goes, modern-day telling of today’s (then) young people wasn’t that far off at all. In a NYT piece titled “Kids: Then and Now”, published July 21st, Ben Dentrick encapsulated as “Lord of the Flies with skateboards, nitrous oxide and hip-hop.

For its 20th anniversary, two major events were held in New York. On June 25, Brooklyn’s Academy of Music hosted Fitzpatrick, Dawson, Sevigny, Korine, Clark, producer Cary Woods, and distribution executive Eamonn Bowles in an earnestly spoken Q&A in front of a sold-out crowd about the impact of Kids (Harold’s brother Ron was there on his behalf). At Manhattan’s Angelicka Theater in Soho, where it premiered 20 years ago on July 28, Fitzpatrick, Clark and Ron Hunter returned and were joined by a few of the supporting actors, including Hamilton Harris who is currently in mid-production of his documentary The Kids, highlighting the other actors that participated and general skateboard community that inspired the film. Hamilton disclosed to Bedford + Bowery and The Screen Feed that while there definite truth to the scenarios, certain jargons and behaviors were stretched a bit for the film’s effect.

Another major reason for Kids maintaining its place in pop culture and film criterion history is that the New York City that is displayed is not the one you will see today. That may sound really obvious, but you could argue that New York in 1985 wasn’t that drastically different from New York in 1995. But in comparison to 2005, and especially 2015, it feels like it really was another era. Nostalgia for the ’90s is at an all-time high right now and for those that completely missed out on 90s skateboard culture that not yet mainstream and the dominance of both New York City and L.A. based hip-hop, Kids makes the time frame more reachable. And as aforementioned, the development of the film and its bravery to feature the story was quietly revolutionary.

Yet as much as we romanticize its impressive legacy, Kids is depressing. That last scene with Casper and Jennie may be one of the most horrifying and it is symbolic of how abhorrent their world really is. You may have wanted to linger around as an outsider from time to time, but characters with their intentions like Telly and Casper, AIDS carrying villains, were likely to overstay their welcome.

The Muse on Jezebel.com asked if the film had encouraged any of its viewers to get a HIV/STD test. It did for the writer, solely based on the opening scene and that is a common thought process in some shape after having seen Kids. Does the film basically turn you off or on and question how you go about your sex life? Free love can be great and experimentation is fine, but have you always done so safely? Kids is a disguised cautionary tale, as confirmed by Fitzpatrick.

Due to its milestone, a lot of great pieces and interviews have been out for reflection purposes, so be sure to click on the hyperlinks above, as well as this fantastic oral history by Rolling Stone. Conducted by Eric Hynes, it is titled ‘Kids’: The Oral History of the Most Controversial Film of the Nineties’, which is a huge statement considering this was also the time frame of Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers.

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