Kids is a cunning little art-house fraud that has somehow managed to impress a good number of people who should know a great deal better. Ever since its invitation-only sneak preview in rough-cut form at last January's Sundance Film Festival, the movie has sustained an ear-piercing buzz as this year's major conversation piece. When it was branded with an NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America, there were the usual cries of censorship by the chronically outraged. And there was additional "controversy" (i.e., free publicity) when Miramax Films, a Disney-owned company, created a brand-new subsidiary in order to release Kids without a rating. But now that we can actually see what everyone has been talking about -- or, in the case of the MPAA ratings controversy, arguing about -- it is once again very clear that, when it comes to gaining high profiles in the media for low-budget independent movies, notoriety has little if anything to do with intrinsic merit.
Ostensibly a shockingly realistic study of contemporary teenagers and their self-destructive tendencies, Kids is at once somberly melodramatic and salaciously voyeuristic in the style of a soft-core morality tale. It's hard to shake the suspicion that, 20 years from now, midnight-movie audiences will be hooting at this moldy piece of cheese as loudly as hipsters in the '60s guffawed at Reefer Madness.
To be sure, first-time filmmaker Larry Clark deserves some credit for giving Kids at least the appearance of hard-edged authenticity. Heretofore best known as a photographer with a special fondness for under-20 subjects, the 52-year-old director cast unknowns and amateurs in the lead roles, drawing heavily on contacts he made while hanging out with young slackers and skateboarders in Manhattan's Washington Square Park. And although he worked from a script written by a young screenwriter who goes by the name of Harmony Korine, Clark very obviously encouraged improvisation among his neophyte actors. Occasionally, the kids in Kids look and sound real enough, and the determinedly jumpy camerawork is vertiginous enough to generate the illusion that this is a work of cinema-verite nonfiction.
Just as often, though, Clark simply focuses on ponderously long exchanges between barely coherent characters who are too doltish, or too drugged out, to do much more than strike vaguely rebellious poses. During those rough stretches, Kids evokes painful memories of the more zonked-out interludes in Flesh, Lonesome Cowboys and other interminable oddities produced by Andy Warhol in the late 1960s and early '70s.
Somewhat like a mean-spirited Dazed and Confused but without the laughs and groovy music, Kids follows a dozen or so teenagers through aimless binges of sex, drugs, petty thievery, heavy drinking and hanging out during a 24-hour period. As the movie begins, Telly, a heavy-lidded louse played by Leo Fitzpatrick, is sweet-talking an anxious but eager girl of 14 or so into giving up her virginity. Telly looks like a younger and dumber version of the dweebs played by Adam Sandler in Saturday Night Live sketches, but he's more than Prince Charming enough to get what he wants. Moments after he scores, he bolts downstairs to Caspar (Justin Pierce), who is waiting patiently on the front stoop and reading a comic book titled Hate. Caspar wants to know every dirty detail of Telly's latest "de-virginization," and Telly is more than willing to describe each sight and smell.
Naturally, the audience is meant to be shocked by the heartlessness of Telly's behavior, and shaken by the candor of its dramatization by Clark. But even though it's difficult to understand many of Telly's slurred words, and even though his nasal-voiced boasting is tediously repetitious, it becomes uncomfortably clear very quickly that Telly is not being presented as a figure worthy of ridicule. It's not merely a matter of Clark's withholding judgment. Quite the contrary: Clark cannot turn his eyes or ears away because, on some ineffable gut level, he's jazzed by the anarchic exuberance that Telly conveys.
Not that Telly is meant to be the hero of the piece. Far from it: As Kids progresses, he is revealed as an angel of death. Early in the film, one of his "de-virginized" former conquests, Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), learns she has tested HIV-positive. Since she has never had sex with anyone before or after Telly, she knows right away who to thank for her condition. But she has neither the time nor the inclination to seek revenge. She guesses what the audience knows to be a fact, that Telly likely will deflower someone else before the day is done. What little plot there is in Kids has to do with Jennie's attempts to locate Telly, so she can warn him of his contagious condition before he scores again. Which, when you think about, may be more than a little presumptuous on her part. After all, there is nothing in what Telly says or does to indicate that, even if he knows he is infected, he will suddenly prove capable of something so responsible and unselfish as safe sex.
For a movie that seeks to offer an honest and informed view of contemporary teens, Kids seems an awful lot like fundraising propaganda for some arch-conservative politician's moral crusade. Almost all of the kids on view indulge in promiscuous (and, worse, unprotected) sex, usually while tripping out on illicit drugs. They steal, they fight, they use foul language. The boys speak in a manner that suggests they think all girls are whores. ("Yeah, they want you to be so kind, so gentle, like you give a fuck or something.") The girls speak in a manner that suggests, hey, they really are whores. And, yes, all of them play that satanic rock and roll music very, very loud. Worse, while they're copping feels or passing joints or swilling malt liquor, these teens are setting bad examples for their younger brothers and sisters.
And what about their parents? Well, it's difficult to say much about them, since, with one notable exception, none of them are visible. All we ever see is Telly's mom, and it's clear that she's a godless heathen because she nurses her infant in full view of Telly and Caspar. Not only that -- she smokes cigarettes as well. No wonder her kid has grown up to be the Antichrist.
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Even when Clark gets the slang right and the attitudes on target, Kids remains a movie in which verisimilitude has no resonance beyond mere shock value. In fact, the entire movie seems to exist only as an excuse to justify Clark's desire to collect persuasively lurid details. When the kids aren't being sufficiently down and dirty to suit his taste, the director will resort to other means -- like, wheeling in a legless beggar while Telly and Caspar take a cross-town subway ride -- to make sure he generates enough jolts.
There is surprisingly little nudity in the handful of sex scenes that dot Kids, and almost none of this activity appears to be much fun. Since most of the characters, even the newly deflowered virgins, are played by teenagers who look under-age, Kids occasionally is profoundly unsettling. But, then again, so is kiddie porn. Or a photograph of a terrible traffic accident. It doesn't take an artist to shake up an audience. But it takes a lot more than a cheap sensationalist to say anything truly insightful about the way we -- and our children -- live now.
Directed by Larry Clark. With Leo Fitzpatrick, Chloe Sevigny and Justin Pierce.