by Jon Bastian
Definitely not for kids. Or adults.
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A fellow critic’s review here of director Larry Clark’s latest, Bully, inspired me to check out Clark’s first film, Kids, on DVD. I suspect from the comments I’ve read on Bully that it is in a very similar vein and, after seeing Kids, I’m not sure I want to bother with anything else from Mr. Clark.
Kids is a difficult film to review, because it feels so authentic. Then again, so does autopsy footage, but that doesn’t mean that very many people would want to go out to see or stay in to rent such a film. The authenticity lends a certain gravitas to the proceedings that I’m not sure the movie deserves. Yes, they talk and act like real kids. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good movie.
The story covers twenty-four hours in the lives of a bunch of loose acquaintances, centering around Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick, Bully), whose favorite pastime is deflowering virgins. In fact, the movie opens with his latest conquest, and he spends the rest of his day in pursuit of his next, Darcy (Yakira Peguero). Complicating matters, a previous victim of Telly’s dubious charms, Jennie (Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don’t Cry) has just tested positive for HIV. Since Telly is the only person she’s ever had sex with, he’s the obvious source of the virus, and she spends the rest of her day trying to track him down and tell him. Along the way, Telly and friend Casper (Justin Pierce, The Big Tease) shoplift, hang out, do drugs, instigate a brawl in Washington Square Park and talk incessantly about the sexual conquests they have made and are going to make. That’s pretty much the whole story, with the ticking clock of Chloë’s search for Telly and Telly’s pursuit of Darcy working against each other.
The big problem I have with the film is precisely what makes it unique. These are real teenagers, acting like real teenagers, but there’s a certain distasteful voyeurism about the whole thing. It doesn’t help that, at the time he made this movie, Leo Fitzpatrick was only sixteen, and a lot of the cast look a hell of a lot younger. If some guy from the Midwest on the Internet made movies depicting what Clark shows here, the FBI would quickly pay him a visit. I’m not sure that what Clark is doing is much different. Granted, there’s no full-frontal nudity, but we do see all of the rest of sixteen year-old Fitzpatrick, quite a lot of a number of girls who are probably the same age, and a disturbing amount of smoking and (presumably) simulated drug use by actors who couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve. There’s a huge difference between twenty-something actors playing horny teens in a sex comedy and real teenagers simulating the same things for real in a dark, urban drama. Even though it may be an accurate depiction of reality, the end result still just feels like exploitation rather than illumination.
Clark’s background doesn’t help things, either. His first career was as a professional photographer, and he’s infamous for a photo-essay book called Tulsa, long since out of print. I’ve never seen the book, but from what I understand it was simply the static version of Kids — underage models playing with guns, drugs and each other, and quite a bit more graphic and revealing than what we see in the movie.
I do have to give kudos to the two male leads, though. Fitzpatrick and Pierce commit to these roles totally and play them with utter abandon. Fitzpatrick is a very odd screen presence. He does come across as a real (vs. Hollywood) teen. But this is also the biggest drawback, because he delivers many of his lines with an inarticulate, heavily (New York) accented nasal grate that makes a lot of what he’s saying, slangy dialogue aside, hard to understand. Pierce, by contrast, is quite understandable with just as much slang but a lot more technique. It’s not the words that are opaque, it’s Fitzpatrick’s delivery.
Still, the whole thing is just uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. In the 1950s, there was a genre of porn that I like to call “Shocking Exposé — For Educational Use Only!” These were really nothing more than explicit whack-books in the guise of reports by doctors or law enforcement on some seedy aspect of society: swingers’ clubs, sex in prison, lesbian seducers and the like. The attitude was always, “This is awful and disgusting but it’s happening today, and we apologize for telling you about it in all its graphic detail, but we must. And wait — here’s more!” The big difference, though, between these antiques and Kids is that the pulp porn always brought its villains some sort of comeuppance. They would reform by the end, or die in horrible ways or get a raging dose of the clap. By the end of Kids, however, Telly is completely unrepentant and Casper commits a spur-of-the-moment act that is so unconscionable it completely undermines any sympathy the character has previously engendered. Yes, the argument could be made that Telly is obviously HIV positive, so he’s going to get his some day. The trouble is, we never get to see him confronted with that realization and end his denial. Likewise, there’s the implication that Casper may have jumped into the same boat, and the merest hint at the end that he’s realized this, but for the most part, Kids ends without judgement, unresolved. That may have been the point, but that kind of open-endedness does a great disservice to the audience who should most see the film — the teenagers who are, ironically, barred from attendance by virtue of it not having an MPAA rating. I half suspect, though, that arthouse revivals are mostly attended by middle-aged men in raincoats.
There is one sad footnote to this whole thing. Star Justin Pierce, who was truly quite good, hanged himself at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas when he was only twenty-five, in July, 2000. In a perverse way, he lived out the fate that’s probably awaiting most of the characters in Kids; a senseless death at a young age. If the film couldn’t even have prevented one of its own cast members from killing himself, what does that say about its larger impact? The only impact it had on me was a vague sense of distaste and the desire immediately after watching it to scrub down every square inch of the house with bleach.
My FilmMonthly colleague described Bully as salacious. That’s the word that best fits Kids as well. You won’t enjoy it. If you’re over the age of twenty-five and you do, then you need professional help.
Jon Bastian is a playwright, screenwriter and TV hack who lives in his native Los Angeles.
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