It’s been 20 years since Larry Clark’s ‘Kids’ was released. Describing the film as ‘gritty’ would be an understatement. From the way that the cast were recruited (the majority of the cast were found skating in Washington Square, NY) to the way that it’s shot in a low budget, lifelike documentary style, this film explores the lives of poor inner city New York kids in a way that hadn’t been done before.
It takes a graphic and unfortunately realistic look at the lives of teenagers in the city in the early nineties with particular attention paid to their promiscuity and the spread of HIV. I don’t think that any film has explored a grim subject topic in such an intense way since, apart from Gasper Noé’s ‘Irreversible’that features an incredibly realistic 15-minute rape scene in a subway as well as exploring general attitudes that men have towards women in horrific detail.
Kids opens with young (perhaps 16/17 year old) Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) kissing a 13-year-old girl in her bedroom (from the off the movie deals with statutory rape, a legal minefield for sexual active teens).
She’s a virgin and he loves it. “You can tell she just ended puberty”, he later brags to his friends.
We are then subjected to an uncomfortable dialogue between him and the girl where she is saying that she doesn’t want to do it because she doesn’t want a baby but Telly manages to convince her to do it anyway and we have to watch the awful sex scene whilst the girl screams in pain. Stealing a girls virginity is an unsavoury hobby of his because, he gloats, “If you fuck a virgin, you’re the man….no-one else has the power to do that again.”
The behaviour of the kids in the film is abhorrent throughout – from Telly’s sick virgin fucking habits to stealing money from their own (clearly very poor) parents as well as beer from an Off Licence, getting stoned at 12-years-old and a large gang of kids beating a man (perhaps to death) with skateboards and feeling no remorse about it.
This film is not for the lighthearted but does everything it set out to do which is to shine a light on the lives of young kids in New York.
The fact that it was written by a kid that Clark found in the skate park (Harmony Korine) also suggests that its subject topics are of common knowledge to the very kids that it’s about.
Korine wrote the script in three days and went on to create some of the world’s most critically acclaimed indie films such as Gummo, Trash Humpersand his mainstream debut Spring Breakers.
This film is partially responsible for the getting a kid out of the skatepark and creating films, some could argue. We also see an indie debut from Chloé Sevigny who went on to star in a lot of Korine’s films.
At the heart of this film is the subject topic of young people’s ignorance to HIV and AIDS. It’s a disease that was largely associated with homosexuality and African people that these kids saw it as just a myth. This is echoed today, not just with AIDS but an array of sexual transmitted diseases –Kids shines a stark light on the teenage mantra of ‘it won’t happen to me’.
As one stoned boy says in the film, “I know no kid with AIDS. No kid died of AIDS. That shit’s all made up.”
If any young people watched this at the time and thought this then I’m pretty sure afterwards they left with a changed viewpoint.
This is surely an incredible achievement for Larry Clark and Harmony Korine as it’s obviously a subject that they wanted to exploit with this film. No film before or since has been so direct and perhaps affective in its approach at tackling this difficult subject topic.
The film is also of its time as a lot of the filming would not be allowed to happen any later in time for gentrification purposes and changes in the law.
Clark would not be able to film 12-year-old boys smoking what appears to be real weed or be able to film a legless man on a subway (who we assume he sourced from an actual subway journey he’d taken).
Kids with its stark realism, cast of actual teenagers and fearlessness in dealing with subjects at the dark heart of teenage lives is what makes it a standout movie. And to think people were outraged by Skins!
This is surely what makes it such a classic, poignant film – it is relatable to everyone who has been a teenager but also showcases a dark world that, for a lot of us, luckily, is so far removed from our own.
Words: Katie Wilkinson
This article was originally published on The National Student.