by Nicholas Lay (@laidbaremedia)
A young couple, stripped down to their undies and suspiciously underage in appearance, engage in some overly gaping lip locking via the medium of extreme close-up. Then, they fuck. During said fucking, our man comments, by way of narration, that his lady friend is a virgin – he likes virgins. A little-known musical project named Deluxx Folk Implosion’s rusty-raw punk fusion proceeds to spin overhead as the opening credits finally roll. Larry Clark’s Kids is four minutes old, and already your eyes are shifting a little uncomfortably as you debate switching it off and pretending the last few moments didn’t happen, content that you’ll never see or hear from Mr. Clark again. But you don’t. You watch it. Don’t worry; we’ve all been there.
Larry Clark’s divisive art house flick has been labelled many things since its initial 1995 release, ranging from “a wake-up call to the world”, to outright “child pornography”. It maintains an almost 50/50 split amongst critics, with many continuing to deplore its frank, graphically disturbing material and heavily sexual nature. Whilst undeniably brutal however, it’s very watchable, a testament to the stylistic and technical achievements of Clark and his team, on what was his debut picture. Whilst his direction has never come even close to scaling such engrossing, high quality heights again (2001’s Bully is an outside shout – everything else should be avoided at all costs), his hectic, down to earth day-in-the-life depiction of New York’s mid-90s youth is a tragic tale well worth revisiting during this, the month of its 20th anniversary.
I myself maintain a weirder-than-average relationship with the film, due primarily to the unconventional manner in which I first viewed it. Though my geeky mid-teen lust for classic cinema meant my 15-year-old-self was no stranger to 18-rated movies, usually the process of watching one was dictated strictly on my terms. After all, when you need to borrow Pulp Fiction from your mate’s brother and sneak a few hours with your sister’s VHS player in order to witness Jules and Vincent shooting the shit without your parents knowing (they probably knew, I think they just wanted me to work for it), you know when to take risks and when to be patient. In short, rather than being sought of my own free will (I’d never even heard of it at the time), Kids was shown to my entire class and I by our almost certainly loopy GCSE Media Studies teacher – for no real reason, I might add. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that particular lesson was an experience.
While, of course, it is not advisable to show Kids to, er, kids, seeing it through a child’s eyes, unlike most critics, provided me with a sense of relatable perspective. After all, the majority of the actors cast were around my age, meaning the peak of life’s first stage of discovery portrayed on screen, re: sex and drugs, was certainly part-tangible, but also still very much part-wonder in real life. The film’s example of youth culture is a rather extreme cluster fuck of literally everything a young person could get up to in one day, but many individual aspects here and there will relate to different people in different ways, more so if watched when you yourself are at that exact stage in your, so far, rather clueless life.
Telly, Jasper, Jennie and co. smoke, they swear, they drink, they fuck, they steal, they fight, and they party. They’re confused, ill informed, and casually aggressive when it comes to issues such as sexuality, sexual health, contraception, rape, and race. Kids doesn’t want or try to make real life teens do anything extraordinary. Rather, it sums up and reaffirms what’s painfully normal, bringing all the little pieces that usually fly under the radar together in an orgy-like, warning-laden crescendo of, in theory, how one’s young life could be effectively destroyed if you don’t keep things in check. Basically, it’s a film that should be viewed by everyone, and no one through ages 15-18.
The themes may be darker than dark, but what stops it from being purely an example of grimy indie exploitation is the part played by practically everyone involved in the production. The kids in front of the camera were virtually all newcomers – real life local skaters whom Clark encountered in Central Park and elsewhere around New York. It’s pretty much a perfect cast, with Leo Fitzpatrick and the late Justin Pierce owning their cocksure roles with easy bravado, and future Hollywood successes Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson showing how and why they went on to big things in spite of their amateur status at the time. Harmony Korine’s streetwise screenplay is smart as hell, giving the impression of constant ad lib sessions when in reality the entire thing – bar one or two scenes – was scripted. The soundtrack is hazy, in your face, hazy, repeat; creating and maintaining tone throughout.
Holding everything together of course, is Larry Clark. Considering he’s a certified screw ball, as his later films prove (again, DO NOT watch anything post-Bully), and had no prior filmmaking experience – certainly in terms of a feature film – he really pulled it out of the bag on this one. Using an eavesdropping, handheld documentary-esque style of shooting, Clark utilises angles and scope alike to create a world that’s up close and far away all at the same time. Bright, intriguing; claustrophobic, frightening – he rarely lets your eyes rest, leaving indie-type iconic imagery burning for a while after, from the aforementioned opening scene, to Jennie’s revelation, to four very young lads crammed on a sofa, sharing a spliff and chatting shit, to Telly and Casper’s respective final conquests.
Clark’s cinematic technique and subject matter go hand in hand, but the sex, drugs, violence, and related range of raw emotions on show aren’t there for the sake of it. Instead, Clark ties the numerous everyday aspects of being young together in a compact (and, granted, over the top) timeline, summing up the dreams and nightmares of the average city-dwelling western youth (and their parents); images that are still relevant now, but that were one hundred perfect in need of attention in 1995. It’s perfectly shocking, lightning in a bottle stuff from Clark, something that no one will likely repeat anytime soon. Him most of all.