Kids (1995) tells the story of 24-hours in the life of a group of teenage friends in mid-90s New York City. It depicts their exploits ranging from fighting and skating to drug use and sex. The movie has gained the status of being highly controversial for its depictions of teenage sexuality. It is the directorial debut of Larry Clark and also Harmony Korine’s debut as a film writer (at the age of 19). The plot unfolds as the main character, Telly, treks through the streets of NYC trying to find more virgins to have sex with, and young girl, Jennie, who has recently contracted HIV from Telly attempts to find him. SPOILERS ahead in the Kids (1995) review.
The most incredible thing about Kids is the pure realism that these characters are depicted with. They feel so true to life that there will be aspects from at least one character that you recognize as a friend you once had or someone you went to school with. Their dialogue is brilliant because, despite their grating “accents” and their talk of unethical sexual conquest, it is once again so real that the film almost seems like a documentary.
The boys in the film were disgusting and vulgar but were not treated only as such. Instead, there are moments where they are having one of their off-putting conversations and one of them actually says something poetic and powerful; or, they do something where you realize even they themselves are questioning their lifestyle – for instance, stopping for a moment to watch the man in the subway sing or watching the legless man move through the aisle. The girls are also treated with equal genius and realism. They discuss sex in a similar way to the boys, something a movie would probably be more comfortable shying away from. The girls have a similar interest in sex and talk about it describing new sexual feats, bragging about detailed specifics, and poking fun at or praising each other. They are also not shown to be completely innocent as they watch brutal fights and seem to almost give the boys more reason to continue on with it.
The acting in the film is a miracle given the actors had never performed before. Chloe Sevigny is powerful – she performs like a seasoned actor showing horrifying pain and fatigue through her NYC journey. Leo Fitzpatrick had such a brilliant performance that in real life he had to get out of the public eye due to the hatred he experienced. Even the younger adolescents perform incredible ad-libbed scenes which even further added to that documentary-like experience.
Jennie discovers she has contracted HIV from Telly who does not know he has it. The film follows two main plots: Jennie as she goes through NYC trying to find Telly to let him know, and Telly as he also travels through NYC with his friend Casper while they buy drugs, skate, steal, party, and try to find girls to have sex with. It is simple, but the detail lies in the more “irrelevant” things they do: when Telly is yelling in the street trying to get a girl to come downstairs, the four adolescents passing a joint and talking, and Jennie speaking with the cab driver.
Every scene causes some sort of discomfort. It is a criticism of the kids themselves, but also on the institutions which led them to this point. Why does Telly only find solace in sex? Why does Jennie not stop Telly when she finds him in the end? Why do the kids feel no remorse in almost killing someone? The movie doesn’t answer these questions, and it definitely does not take any blame away from them; but, the blame also can lie somewhere else: in the broken families they come from, in a school system that is only meant to filter them in and then out, or in a society that puts little value on anything other than work. The kids not only have nothing to do, but seemingly nothing to strive for.
In the end, we see rape, my one major contention with the film. Casper, not knowing Jennie now has HIV, rapes her while she is in a drug-induced sleep. There is no issue with the inclusion of this event, as the possibility of transmission leading from Telly to Casper is a powerful message. But the issue is the lingering camera. It is obviously meant to again discomfort the audience, but it almost feels like it relishes in the length it focuses on the event. The end also feels abrupt, with Telly’s speech and Casper’s awakening not providing any new or necessary insight to the message the film set out to present.
If there is a movie to convince kids to practice safe sex or to stay away from the more drug-fueled, violent lifestyle, this may be one of the best. Not only does it provide an insight into the horrors of this life, but it gives a realistic and entertaining portrayal of their personalities. Even without having lived a similarly hedonistic life, it is so easy to relate to the feelings and emotions the kids have, and to see even a bit of oneself in a few of them. The film also balances the bleak atmosphere with moments of humor, allowing the viewer to not be overwhelmed by discomfort but to instead have moments to reflect on it. Although the last few scenes of the film did not leave me as satisfied as the rest, I still believe it is an astounding movie that is well worth watching.
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