With his debut feature, Larry Clark has made an unpleasant film about a few repulsive characters who lead a fairly irredeemable existence. Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, it provoked a hailstorm of accolades from critics who latched onto its uncompromising style and raw vision of (mostly) white urban American youth. Even the film's rating created a ruckus, with Disney subsidiary Miramax first appealing the obviously unavoidable NC-17 and then creating a new company (Shining Excalibur) to release it unrated. The hype machine has turned the movie's release into something of an event, daring audiences to come stare into the abyss that is young America. Unfortunately, while the flick itself lives up to its billing, it doesn't deliver much else.
The story is pretty thin. Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is an obnoxious kid who brags about his knack for seducing virgins (we see him having sex with one in the movie's very first scene). Casper (Justin Pierce) is his pal, slightly more sympathetic because he's something of a straight man to Telly's obscene vocal meanderings. Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) is one of the girls Telly has deflowered, and when she tests HIV-positive, she sets off across New York City on a quest to catch Telly--the only sexual partner she's ever had--before he screws again.
Not that we're given the impression that Telly would stop having sex, or even start wearing a condom, if he knew he had the AIDS virus. At one point, he remarks in voiceover that sex means everything to him, and his worldview is so nihilistic that concern for someone else's life is probably beyond him. In fact, Kids reminded me of another relentlessly despairing New York cult film, Liquid Sky. In that movie, a character is bemused and pleased by her ability to kill people by having sex with them, and it follows that Telly might get a similar macho thrill out of having a secret weapon at his disposal.
Another movie Kids bears a passing resemblance to is A Clockwork Orange, where Alex and his "droogs" get hopped up at the Korova milk bar and then go out looking for a fight. That movie shocked audiences with jubilant scenes of violence and then posed questions about whether or not Alex could be reformed by the state. But there is no state in Kids. The police aren't a concern, and the parents are absent or ineffectual. This state of mind regenerates itself in a tight cycle, as we see the younger counterparts of these kids hanging out at the same parties, experimenting with drugs and trying their best to talk tough.
The centerpiece of Kids is a scene in Washington Square park, where a rowdy gang of skateboarders, including Telly and Casper, taunt first a gay couple and then a man whom they proceed to beat within an inch of his life. That's the moment where the characters lose our sympathy completely, and we realize how much damage stands to be done by these loser kids. And then there's a great scene right after it where the kids strip down and go swimming in the middle of the night, showing themselves off to each other (a pair of girls along for the ride kiss just to make the boys crazy). It's the closest thing to an innocent good time these characters have, even though Telly is scheming on his next conquest through it all.
As a realistic portrait of those bleak teenage years, I guess Kids should get high marks. The music is just right. The actors, who aren't professionally trained, do a great job inhabiting their roles, and Harmony Korine's screenplay goes a long way toward creating this film's naturalistic feel. Kids is mostly well-directed, even though some shots go on forever, striving for realism but instead dulling the senses with pseudo-documentary stylistics. Jennie is the closest thing we have to a sympathetic character, and even she is violated in the neat-but-predictable denouement.
Critical reaction to the film has been almost worshipful, and as best I can figure out, that's for two reasons. One is that the film is supposedly a "wake-up call," and I guess it serves that purpose for folks who haven't yet figured out that this world is populated more and more by selfish, disenfranchised youth who get their kicks from drugs, sex, and casual cruelty. The other is that the film is a contemporary tragedy, telling the story of young people with no direction, no family, and nothing to look forward to. It's admirable that the film avoids moralizing, and that it is frank, brutal, and honest. I'd like to see it spur serious debate about the plight of young people in our society. But Kids remains more satisfying as an event than as a movie. We barely feel for these kids, and that's a big part of why this movie seems nearly as empty as the lives it depicts. That might be exactly the intention here, but I'd argue that makes for questionable drama, and mediocre movies.