Larry Clark's controversial Kids is a film about New York City adolescents walking the AIDS tightrope, but it's also an unblinking look at the dehumanising rituals of growing up. It really doesn't add up to more than the sum of its various shocks--virgin-busting, skinny-dipping, male callousness--overlayed with middle-class disapproval. Clark is hectoring us for cutting kids loose at a terrible time in modern American history, but so are a lot of other people who also offer alternatives and ideas. The film does nothing to push us toward new thoughts, new solutions, new dreams. It is more like a window onto our worst fantasies about what our children are doing out there on the streets. --Tom Keogh, Amazon.comfrom£13.39 | RRP:
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Kids Arshad Mahmood
If you're that small percentage of the film-going audience who won't go to any movie that might give you an unpleasant experience then Kids is certainly not for you. If you're offended by people having or even talking about sex, then you'd also better steer clear of this film because that's pretty much nearly all of what happens in it. Larry Clark's documentary-style account of 24 hours in the lives of a group of sexually active, homphobic New York slackers in their early teens who travel Manhattan on skateboards and subway trains, have unprotected casual sex, drink, do drugs, talk, party and crash in a familiar stupor, caused controversy by its raw, unflinching depiction of a youth culture in the mid nineties who didn't have any interests, any curiosity, any values or any frame of reference beyond immediate animal gratification. What gives Kids its documentary feel is the way it sees this culture in such flat, unblinking detail; it knows what it's talking about. We're in the characters' world and you therefore get the insider's point of view. One word to describe it is shocking. I've never seen anything like it before or since, and am unlikely to see anything like it again.
Kids centres on a terrific plot involving two girls who go for an AIDS test. The result shadows the rest of the film.
One of the girls, Jenny, played by the perfectly cast Chloe Sevigny, finds out she's infected with the HIV virus after just one sexual experience and goes looking for the sixteen year old guy named Telly who's responsible. Telly at least has an interest in life; sex. He continuously talks about his enthusiasm for de-virginising young girls and is egged on by his friends. It is this casting of Leo Fitzpatrick as Telly that has a great deal to do with the powerful impact the film delivers. He's the kind of kid who gives parents nightmares and would make them think we'd better watch and worry. He is essentially a very effective sex machine, prowling through streets of naive, underage girls. What makes him unforgettable are two things; Firstly his face, which is a scary study in self-absorption as he tells girls lies they should laugh at but being naïve or simply curious, they listen to him. He contorts his face in such frighteningly grotesque ways as he talks with great enthusiasm and conviction of his twisted sexual fantasies and conquests like a series of ugly blows, you literally want to lock your daughters away from this animal. "What if I get pregnant," asks a girl, who looks about fourteen. "If you.me, you don't have to worry about that," Telly tells her. "Why not?" "Because I love you. Because I think you're beautiful." It's as easy as that. Minutes later, with his mission accomplished, he's back on the street with his friend explaining his philosophy about virgins: "Say you die tomorrow. Fifty years from now, she'll still remember you." Hearing the way he delivers these words in a crude, grating, raspy, foghorn voice with that authentic New York twang is the second reason why this character stays with you long after the movie is over. Everything that comes out of his mouth sounds unwholesome. He's not much to look at either but that doesn't stop him from being a sexual predator. The irony of his prophecies is that when we hear the girls talk about their sexual conquests, they can't even remember losing their virginity. Telly is completely out of touch with the opposite sex.
Leo Fitzpatrick wasn't even an actor before this movie. He was a skateboarder. That makes his performance all the more remarkable. You actually dislike Telly so much you want to deny Fitzpatrick's accomplishment in creating him. The girls are under his supremely confident spell.
What's also interesting about the movie is the way it's shot. You hardly ever see Manhattan. The camera is trained on this depressing youth culture. What is not human and between 12 and 17 essentially doesn't exist. This is summarised best in a scene early in the movie. Telly's friend Casper pauses with nonchalance in full view of passersby on a street corner to urinate. That is not the shocking part. What is strange is that Telly chooses to stand around the corner from Casper as if to give him his privacy. Studying this body language, the notion that the movie is about these young people's world is reinforced as they appear to live in a place where adults simply do not exist. This is film language of the highest order.
The dialogue in the film sounds authentic, organic and improvised, though was actually written by a teenaged skateboarder named Harmony Korine. The use of non-actors adds to the natural feel of the film although at times, the lack of professional experience does affect a few performances. We do however end up with a time capsule to a specific youth culture in New York in the mid nineties and an ode to adolescent sexual mischief.
Clark's direction is discreet. He delivers his point with character and action and not with speeches, though there are wonderful discussions amongst the kids. The picture has this meandering, observational but seldom illuminating style that is extremely effective.
Much of the controversy and moral panic about Kids comes not from the level of nudity or explicitness in the film of which there isn't a lot of but from the fact that the teenagers in this movie actually look like teenagers. There are those who argue that the tone of the film is sordid with the view of these pubescent hedonists as hermetic and that the filmmakers' honesty seems obscene, exploitative and sensational. I think we live in a society that is increasingly becoming more hermetic, where people turn a blind eye to the problems faced by those marginalised in our society. We've established that few of the kids seem bothered about anything except meaningless sex, whatever illegal drugs or booze is available, and the odd bit of mindless violence. Nonetheless there is a strong message coming out of this horny AIDS parable; Kids is a wake-up call, a cautionary tale about the importance of safe sex. Of course safe sex won't civilise these kids or turn them into curious, capable citizens but when you think about Telly, you feel life has given him nothing that interests him other than sex, drugs and skateboards. He's living a hell on earth, briefly interrupted by orgasms.
The first time I saw Kids, I was a teenager myself and it didn't shock me as much as when I saw it recently as a forty year old. That is essentially because although most kids are not like those depicted in the movie, some are and I've seen, met and hung out with them. For some young people, this film is about real life. Kids from this culture do have sex, drink booze, smoke weed and commit acts of meaningless violence. If you don't believe me, you only need to read the papers to discover this and that all teenagers have a secret life and it's always darker than what their parents think. As a kid myself at the time of the film's release, though my own life didn't quite mirror those in the film, I did get it. It did feel real. You don't identify with the exact behaviour but the hanging out, skateboarding, alcohol-taking, weed-smoking and the hip-hop music resonates with most youth. We'd never seen all these elements rolled into one movie. Yes, detractors have a point that the film is a little exaggerated but you'd have to be pretty ignorant to deny things like those shown in the film weren't going on. They represent a failure at home, school, church, mosque and society as a whole. They could have been raised in a zoo, educated only to the base instincts. What the movie did is make me understand why we all need a mix of art, education, religion, philosophy, politics and poetry in our lives because without something to open our windows to the higher possibilities of life, we might all be Tellys, and more amputated than this half-man on his skateboard. Perhaps I was more shocked by the film now not because I'm an adult now but because we live in a world that's much more sanitised and candy-flossed over by the consumer and media culture that dominates us.
From a storytelling point of view, it has all the hallmarks of a great film. The inciting incident in any story is its most profound cause and the story climax in this film seems inevitable but like all great movies, it doesn't happen the way we expected it. The actions people take to fix things become exactly what are needed to be destroyed by them.
The way this amoral film delivers its message is groundbreaking and makes it something of a landmark. Yes it's depressing and unfiltered with no feel good stuff but there still appears to be a glimmer of hope, a fleeting chance at redemption. Kids is a truthful and emotionally satisfying film despite its bleakness.
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