I was not, to put it mildly, a big fan of Larry Clark’s 1995 debut feature Kids. It smacked to me too much of conscious art-house outrage, and I ignored Clark’s subsequent films — Another Day in Paradise, Bully, and Teenage Caveman. Having now seen Ken Park, I wonder if I should go back and visit his other films. Ken Park continues Clark’s obsession with the seamy side of suburban teenage life — the stoners, the skaters, the casual sex. But this film holds together — as both a narrative and an artistic piece — far better than Kids (which, like this movie, was written by Harmony Korine). And with Ed Lachman on board as co-cinematographer and co-director, the movie has a luscious, professional sheen. You may be appalled by some of what you see in Ken Park, but aesthetically it’s not a handheld skank-fest — much of it is rather beautiful.
The eponymous character Ken Park is a freckled kid who performs an act of violence right after the opening credits. He’s not really referenced again till the end, when we find out what drove him to it. Most of the movie deals with kids who knew him: Shawn (James Bullard), who’s sleeping with his girlfriend’s hot mom; Peaches (Tiffany Limos), who lives with her devoutly Christian dad, a widower worshiping at the altar of his dead wife; Claude (Stephen Jasso), whose macho dad despises him; and Tate (James Ransone), a weirdo who lives with his grandparents and loudly berates them. Ken Park differs from Kids in that we see the parents as well as the kids — and, surprise, the parents are often drawn sympathetically even through their flaws.
If you’ve heard of Ken Park at all, it’s likely because of its content, which makes Kids look like Teletubbies. Explicit sex (and I mean explicit, like triple-X explicit), masturbation, and near-incest are all on the menu. For this reason, the film has had a terrible time finding a distributor in America, and it’s been banned outright in Australia. But if the far more pornographic Baise-Moi got a distributor here, so should Ken Park, which has more going for it than hardcore imagery and shock. Harmony Korine has always had an incongruous sweet side — sometimes I think that bothers people more than if he were just straight-up nihilistic — and it comes out here in an odd yet moving scene in which Tate, having just gotten into a shouting match with his grandfather over a game of Scrabble, goes outside and joins a group of friendly black girls in a game of jump-rope. Innocence is given its due here. Even the climax (no pun intended), in which three of the teenagers participate in a menage a trois, is handled with equal parts candor and tenderness. Here, finally, Clark takes the skankiness out of teen sex, making it into a romantic idyll.
Some of the events in the movie (Clark says much of it is based on actual happenings), I think, are designed more for aftermath effect. If you’re the pregnant wife of a man who got drunk last night and tried to fellate your teenage son, how do you act? Amanda Plummer, a fixture in indie movies, plays the scene with an emphasis on bewildered denial — the fact of what happened is simply too ugly for her to wrap her brain around. In a few words, she makes you understand why women like her “stand by and don’t do anything.” When Peaches’ dad catches her in a bit of bondage play with a naked boyfriend, what follows has a certain insane logic and cuts right to the chase — you can see it coming, but you don’t actually expect the movie to go there. Ken Park is more a study of adults in extremis than a scuzzy portrait of teen life; it has more in common with Todd Solondz’ Happiness than with Kids.
The movie — intentionally, I assume — leaves various plot threads dangling, much like life. Few of the stories have a neat cap, except the one that ends in murder. It’s more an excuse for moments that cut to the quick, like the early scene of a kid more or less beating a declaration of love out of his younger brother, or a scene in which one kid tells another that he should be grateful he has a dad, even if his dad’s an asshole. (It’s a testament to either Korine’s writing or the young actor’s improv skills that the sentiment doesn’t come off as preachy.) Ken Park is about people lost in a haze of contempt and despair, trying to wrest some love or relief out of the situation. It reached me where Kids missed me, and those who had similar feelings about Clark’s earlier work might want to give Ken Park a day in court — even if Australia won’t.