Photographer Larry Clark's debut feature film Kids is one of those tough critical calls for a movie pundit, although you wouldn't know it by reading any of the rapturous notices printed in the national press about this eye-poppingly explicit look at the hijinks of a group of rootless adolescents on a New York summer day.
Clark obviously possesses a masterful aesthetic eye, judging not only by the hand-picked collection of non-professional street kids who populate the film but by the graffiti-ridden apartments and cracked concrete streets that serve as the backdrop for their orgiastic indulgences. But the film finally amounts to just a series of pretty waif faces and post-apocalyptic urban set designs, floodlit with wildly explicit sex talk by 22-year-old screenwriter Harmony Korine.
It's the cold-bucket-of-water-in-your-face bluntness that reviewers have responded to, many of whom have co-opted the movie as a political tool against the new Victorianism practiced by religious right-stacked school boards across the country. Whether or not you provide them contraceptive access and detailed sexual information--they've said in tremulous critical voices--this is what your children are doing while you're not around.
"I had no intention of making a political statement with the film, and I'm still not sure I see one," Larry Clark told the Dallas Observer during a recent interview.
"I wanted audiences to feel they were getting a privileged experience when they watched Kids--to get the chance to see how adolescents carry on without adult supervision. When you grow up, lots of times you forget just how reckless some of the stuff you did was, or you idealize the hell out of it. Most films about youth are bullshit autobiographies, a bunch of rosy memories. If left to their own devices, most kids don't act like little angels. They'll cuss and smoke dope and drink beer."
You're tempted to take Clark's professed apolitical motives as disingenuous after the film spins off into public-service announcement territory when it introduces a girl who became HIV-positive after one sexual experience. Admittedly, though, Kids doesn't work too well as a call for progressive sex education and contraceptive availability. When he first started to research the film as a documentary on New York's skate-kid culture, Clark was amazed by how much information had so little effect.
"That was the summer when there was a big deal in New York about condom distribution," he says. "You couldn't walk a city block without someone handing you a rubber. You had all these boys and girls laughing and shooting them at each other.
"At first, I thought, 'Great, they know about safe sex.' But then after talking to them for a while, it became obvious that nobody was practicing it. Most of the guys didn't want to use condoms. Their idea of safe sex was to fuck virgins."
The film Kids is really a natural extension of the subject matter Larry Clark has won national raves for as a professional photographer of more than 25 years. A boyhood spent fascinated with movies and operating a door-to-door baby photography service with his mother fueled a desire to capture the fleeting essence of youth. Published almost 20 years apart, his classic photo collections Tulsa and Teenage Lust featured young men and women from blue-collar environments in vivid, grainy tableaux that crossed the line, for some, from appreciation into exploitation.
Clark does a high-wire act across that same line with his maiden cinematic voyage. Kids features several long, fumbling sex scenes that could be described most charitably as "dry humps" (the characters are stoned or drunk or nervous virgins enduring the pain of first penetration), yet with no nudity. Best girlfriends elaborate on the dental health downside of oral sex. Best buddies chortle about soiled tampons and gaze lustfully at a mother as she breast-feeds her infant.
High-octane stuff, to be sure, but does it really warrant an NC-17--the dreaded "art-house X rating" that the Motion Picture Association of America refused to remove even after the filmmaker's appeal. An NC-17 would mean that the movie's distributor, Miramax, could not release the film, as per the policy of parent company Disney.
Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the brothers who operate Miramax, simply formed a one-shot production company, Excalibur Films, and released Kids into nationwide theaters unrated.
"Harvey and Bob were so fully behind this film, it amazed me at times," Clark declares. "In effect, when they formed Excalibur, they were competing against themselves."
As far as the MPAA's verdict goes, Clark expresses bewilderment. "I envisioned this movie as an R-rated feature, and filmed it with that expectation in mind. As far as I'm considered, it still is an 'R'. Show me one scene in that movie--one scene--that breaks any of the rules of an R-rating."
Clark is equally adamant about the intended audience for his movie. "I think this is not only a movie about kids, but it's for them, too. Kids should go with their parents and talk about what they saw afterward. I've already taken my 12-year-old son to see it, but then there's nothing up there onscreen that we haven't already talked about before. I think that's what people are scared of.
"As it stands now, although the movie was released without a rating, most theaters nationwide are enforcing a strict 'no one under 17' policy. That's a shame, but I think teenagers will find a way to sneak in if they really want to. Soon, of course, it'll be on video and HBO, where everybody can see it.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.