By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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Prominent movie critics across the country have joined hands in ritual public display of their admiration for Oklahoma-born photographer Larry Clark's unrated feature debut Kids. This, after all, is the film that Mickey The Mouse refused to release under His newly acquired Miramax label, forcing the filmmakers to form their own distribution company; made everyone rave at Sundance even while Grand Jury members gave their prize to the cheerful, lukewarm The Brothers McMullen; and risked the commercially damning disapproval of the MPAA when Clark would slice nary a frame from his own cut.
Kids, in other words, is opening in theaters nationwide almost solely on its reputation for verbal and visual explicitness. Director Clark, who made his name 24 years ago with a searing, supple collection of photographs of street kids and blue-collar adolescents called Tulsa, makes his maiden cinematic voyage debut with the same eye for grocery-line provocation you'd expect from a man who earned his reputation with single images.
Working from a script by 20-year-old high school dropout Harmony Korine, Larry Clark wanted to document the language, loves, and losses of inner-city adolescents getting off on adult vices. You'd expect any such venture to contain a hefty amount of profanity, sex, and drug use, and the filmmakers disappoint us in none of those categories. Although he avoided using any outright nudity among his youthful performers, Clark clearly relishes the Dionysian exploits around which he hovers--the film anti-climaxes with an excruciatingly slow sex scene between two zonked-out friends, which can be taken either as moral lesson or soft-core pornography, depending on your perspective.
Problem is, Clark the veteran, award-winning photographer exists on an entirely different plane than Clark the debut director, who seems to believe that a baby's face cussing and drinking and smooching like a sailor's represents a revolutionary cinematic image in itself. Kids was manufactured to shock as many people as possible, with Clarke hiding behind the familiar "I-just-tells-it-like-I-sees-it" excuse that's the last resort of most filmmakers who have a strong idea but don't know how to develop it.
In fact, the movie is as moralistic and didactic as any public service announcement against venereal disease, with a few souped-up, affectionless rolls on the couch shot by a hand-held camera to prove what you're watching isn't just a movie--it's the way things are. Before half the show is over, you feel like you've been watching an Afterschool Special directed by debut filmmaker Larry Flynt.
Although there are at least a couple dozen characters featured in Kids, many of them cast direct from the parks and playgrounds of New York City, Larry Clark focuses our attention on just three: Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), a guy with a mouthful of crooked teeth whose favorite mumbled introduction to potential male friends is "What kind of bitches you like to fuck?"; Casper (Justin Pierce), whose electric shock of brown hair seems activated by his love for beer and dope; and Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), a sad-eyed, short-haired girl who has just lost her virginity to Telly.
Casper and Telly are best friends the camera follows from doorstep to abandoned apartment to park to basketball court in one 24-hour period. Telly is a gawky, merciless braggart whose specialty is deflowering young virgins. It is, for him, a gesture toward posterity made at a moment in his life when he can't possibly conceive how temporary everything is: "That's one thing they can't take away from you," he snickers to Casper. "You're always the first guy."
In the case of Jennie, her First Guy has robbed her of something she can never recover--a long-term future. Jennie discovers by accident she is HIV-positive, and sets out on a journey through neighborhood haunts to find Telly and confront him with the information.
That's the plot of Kids, propped up on a series of Henry Jaglom-ish conversation sequences that feature both young men and young women rhapsodizing and bitching with teeth-gritted enthusiasm about sex. Although screenwriter Korine's dialogue was obviously cherished for its rawness, what Clark pursues onscreen is the distilled, predatory essence of pubescent hormones. Between the two of them, they fabricate a cast of hedonistic teenagers draped in veritŽ costumes who carry contemporary social dilemmas like placards but never quite dramatize them.
These youngsters think, talk, and act so often with their carnal instincts out front, they actually come off as more informed--albeit in a very crude way--than your average adult. Jennie and her best friends not only know where to go for free birth control and AIDS tests, they rush off there whenever they suspect trouble. Telly and Casper and their friends are fully aware of the HIV virus, how it's spread, and what they can do to decrease the likelihood of acquiring it. They just don't care.
You can argue that this is precisely what Kids tries to say--in an American culture steered by messages from the media, kids pick and choose what they want to hear according to their own sense of youthful invincibility. Clark makes that point, but he never really drives it home with canny cinematic decision-making because he's too busy wallowing in the "authenticity" of his performers, whose obvious inexperience distracts us even more than a group of professional actors trained to improvise would.
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