Like most movies that come wrapped in controversy, Kids doesn’t quite deliver. The first-time director, Larry Clark, is rather like his protagonist: He comes on to you, has his rough way with you, and leaves you feeling empty and violated. I’m not writing this in an offended mood of high outrage. I wish I were. Kids is too dramatically listless, too artfully artless, to be truly offensive. Its single-minded, unblinking devotion to New York squalor is admirable to a point, but past that point you don’t know why you’re watching these skateboarder teen wolves or the brainless girls who passively spread their legs for them. The moments of genuine power are few and very far between.
Clark, a noted photographer with a taste for youthful dissipation and degradation, has said he originally set out to make a video about skateboarders; while hanging out with them, he met the 19-year-old Harmony Korine, who put together a script with the most tenuous of narrative threads. The central character, 17-year-old Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), is a “virgin surgeon” whose hobby is deflowering girls barely out of puberty. We meet one of his past conquests, Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), who has just tested positive for HIV. She spends the movie trying to find Telly and brief him on her condition, because he’s the only boy she’s ever slept with. Meanwhile, Telly zeroes in on another virgin, the sweet-faced, relatively innocent Darcy (Yakira Peguero). Then there’s Telly’s stoned-out buddy Casper (Justin Pierce), himself a virgin, though of course obscenely boastful about all the “bitches” he’s bagged. He wakes up after the film’s climactic party and, in one desperate and repugnant act, brings the plot full circle. Harmony Korine’s raw-slice-of-life screenplay has a commercial eye: It has that cheap suspense mechanism at its core — will Jennie stop Telly in time to save Darcy? — and it has an ironic, literary symmetry beloved by young writers. Plus it has random spasms of sex and violence to keep our interest. Critics are calling this a daring movie.
I have nothing against depressing films. They can be cleansing, cathartic, and oddly comforting; the comfort derives from watching characters worse off than we are. But Kids, which purports to show the way things are, has nothing much to say about the way things are. Clark’s quasi-documentary viewpoint is as limited as the kids’ consciousness. And he’s definitely a photographer, not a director. During the party scene, the camera sits stranded in front of four prepubescent boys parked on a couch, passing a joint back and forth. They’re a pictorial study in decline, a free-floating Mount Rushmore image. The other kids serve the same iconic purpose, like Calvin Klein ads selling Clark’s muted, alarmist vision of oblivion.
Whom is Kids for? Probably not for the audience Clark hopes to reach — the kids who might supposedly be shown the error of their ways. (Clark has described Kids as “a cautionary tale.”) The MPAA originally gave the movie an NC-17 rating, which would have pushed it off-limits to those under 17 whether or not they were “accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.” But Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the brothers behind Kids‘ distributor Miramax, knew that the Disney-owned Miramax couldn’t put out an adults-only film — not after the flap over Miramax’s Priest. So the Weinsteins bought the rights, created the one-shot company Shining Excalibur, and is releasing Kids under that label, and without a rating. This now means that kids can see it with their parents, but is that likely? The few parents who wouldn’t be mortified sitting next to their children at this movie would probably fail in their attempts to get their kids to accompany them to “a cautionary tale.” (And what kid would want to sit through the earnest parental discussion afterward?) Kids, then, is for adults, and, more specifically, for hip Gen-Xers who want to prove that nothing shocks them. But Kids isn’t shocking — not nearly as much as Hector Babenco’s Pixote, or Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (which is 45 years old!).
All right: Unlike the kids in those films, Clark’s kids aren’t murderers — at least not consciously. But hasn’t anyone noticed the dodgy contradictions in what Larry Clark says about his movie? Out of one side of his mouth, he comes on like a moralizer performing a public service (“Parents should see it with their kids”); out of the other side, he seems to back away from that, perhaps afraid to make Kids sound like an art-house Reefer Madness. Clark is both a 52-year-old concerned parent of two and an outlaw artiste clinging to his street cred. The movie itself reveals Clark’s prurient interest in the ways these kids kill themselves. The mechanical zombie sex, the arrogantly open drug use (the kids smoke huge blunts in the park, as if getting busted weren’t even a remote possibility) — it’s all part of Clark’s hip loser aesthetic. Nobody on the screen has any aspirations aside from getting high or getting laid. It’s a reductive vision and, at its core, a conservative one. Kids is like Porky’s directed by Richard Avedon: crude yet slick, a sexualized turn-off.
The movie is an itchy blanket of nihilism thrown over us. The audience, on the lookout for anything entertaining, laughs in disbelief at Telly’s come-ons and appalling blow-by-blow accounts of his sexual triumphs. Outside the theater, disgusted young women couldn’t stop talking about how they would never have fallen for such rancid come-ons; their male companions, knowing they wouldn’t be getting any that night, kept a respectful, shamefaced distance. (This is not, to put it mildly, a date movie.) Kids invites disdain for its characters, not understanding. Some of the come-on stuff is funny, in a low way. Another boy, squirming in helpless desire to get into some girl’s pants, tries to win her over by promising her the moon: “I’ll take you out to dinner …. I’ll give you some food, buy you a corn dog.” For variety, there are gross-out scenes: Casper dips a tampon into juice and sucks on it; a guy sitting passed-out next to a toilet gets pissed on.
Clark wants us to react. But what exactly does our reaction add up to? Impotent despair at the state of urban youth? The movie will probably attract neither the kids who most need whatever “lesson” it affords (they’re waiting for the next Batman movie or horror movie) nor the older people in a position to make institutional changes (The Bridges of Madison County is more their speed). Kids, I’m afraid, is the latest trendy grunge event, all candor and no insight, designed to make college-age, middle-class city audiences feel as though they’ve walked on the wild side. And the kids (as they also were in another teens-from-hell drama, River’s Edge) are so blank that you don’t care about them — with the possible exception of Darcy (played appealingly by Yakira Peguero), who is Harmony Korine’s update of the maiden whose purity is endangered. (Korine’s knight in shining armor is Jennie, I guess, but she’s a singularly ineffectual knight.)
You respond to these kids in a detached, abstract way — you’re supposed to be appalled at the idea of them. Kids is a horror movie for people who want to think the worst. But at the end, when the shaken Casper croaks “Jesus Christ, what happened?”, there’s no answer because we don’t really know what drove him to do what he does. Artists too often shame us into accepting sketchy motivation as ambiguity. For Kids to be as disturbing as it wants to be, we’d have to feel the boy’s goatish lust, the girls’ self-loathing sexual passivity (these harsh, meaningless bangs may be the only attention they get). Larry Clark doesn’t get inside his kids’ heads. He just films their bodies, records their leering voices, then stands back and calls it a portrait.