August 31 - September 6, 1995

B y  Z a c h a r y  W o o d r u f f


THROUGHOUT THE MOVIE Kids, the audience is subjected to the sight of 10- to 16-year-olds doing things adults don't like to believe they do. Over the course of 24 hours, the loosely assembled set of characters shoplift, urinate in public, beat people up, steal from parents, drink and do drugs to the point of sickness, brag about sexual conquests and engage in opportunistic forms of rape. Made with stunning clarity by photographer Larry Clark, the film is a triumph of realism: Every scene has a full documentary texture. Because of this, many have hailed Kids as "important"--a wake-up call for the next generation.

That claim certainly has some merit, as Kids comes closer than any other recent film to describing the empty lives of teenagers. But it's equally tempting to dismiss Kids as exploitation: a series of sensational images with few organizing principles to elevate the material above mere voyeurism. Devoid of well-articulated themes or a strong narrative, Kids often comes across less a moral statement than an aesthetic one. It's a series of staged photo-ops where the director seems every bit as fascinated by his subject as repelled; the vapid world he inhabits is a landscape fit to be photographed for its decadent beauty.

Kids' deceptively simple storyline follows the teenaged main characters Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) and Casper (Justin Pierce) through a day of casual debauchery, beginning with Telly's systematic deflowering of a young woman he cares nothing for. Ruled by their ids, Telly and Casper roam the movie with the mentality of cavemen, talking only about the next party, the next thrill, the next lay. Their travels lead them through an urban wasteland overflowing with similarly mindless denizens (most of whom are played by extremely naturalistic young actors hand-picked from the streets).

Elsewhere, Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), a sweet, all-too-vulnerable teen who has recently lost her virginity to Telly, learns she is HIV positive. Her search for Telly before he conquers his next virgin forms the film's only claim to suspense or narrative drive. By focusing on this situation, Kids lays a hard line describing boys as sexual predators and girls as potential victims. It postures itself as the ultimate antidote to all those rosy, puppy-love teen films that depict sexual curiosity as something innocuous.

Though Kids is intended as hard-core social commentary, it's questionable whether the film's unpleasant, in-your-face approach is really justified. Clark, like many directors before him, often confuses making the audience's stomach turn with making them think. The film's purposeful gross-out moments are many, including a scene in which a boy casually sucks fruit punch out of a tampon.

Between its gratuitous episodes, Kids pauses to gaze at an adult world made up of crippled transients, a spiritless mother and a taxi driver who explains that he has learned to cope with life by not thinking about it. These characters make for a dreary vision of what the picture's kids are becoming: numbed-out casualties of their own lack of vision and self-control.

For comparative purposes, I rented River's Edge, which has roughly the same point--that many of today's teens have no moral center--but tries to state its case via a far more conventional method. Though not a very good movie, I found it to be much richer as a story. The characters are depicted in varying shades of emptiness and sympathy, rather than the monochromatic gray that washes over Kids; and their conflicts serve to work out the film's themes, whereas the characters in Kids never clash, since they all represent the same nothingness.

What River's Edge lacks is visceral power; next to Kids, it's like an after-school special. So whatever value Kids has as social commentary comes from its bluntness. Wake-up call? Hardly. More like having a bucket of icy cold water poured over your head. For those who feel that subtler methods just aren't enough to get the point across, Kids is a must-endure.

Kids is playing at The Loft (795-7777) cinema.

Tucson Weekly's Film Vault
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August 31 - September 6, 1995

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