I was 16 years old when Larry Clark’s Kids came out in 1995. I may not have lived in a big city like New York, but it didn’t matter. I lived a life not too dissimilar to those of Jennie (Chloë Sevigny) and Ruby (Rosario Dawson), the two lead girls in the film. I was quiet and shy like Jennie, but more like Ruby when it came to sexual experience—I had more sexual partners, drank more alcohol, and took more drugs in the three years between ages 15 to 18 than I have in the 23 years since. I’m not proud of that fact, but it was just the way life was back then, growing up. I enjoyed myself; it made me feel alive at the time. Was I aware I was risking my life so much? Possibly, but yet somehow, it didn’t matter. It’s not that I wanted to die; I wanted to live. Isn’t it funny how dying is that one step too far when you’re having fun?
I was a skater girl without having ever ridden a skateboard. I was far too awkward, clumsy and self-conscious for that, but hanging out with the boys (and a tiny number of girls that I could just about bear), I was in my element. We would hang all day in the Castle Gardens outside McDonald’s, watching the boys do their tricks. This recreational activity annoyed pretty much anyone over the age of 50. We were moved on by the police a lot, so we’d go to the warehouse where the bands practised or to the Uni—anywhere there were good railings or curbs for the boys to practice on. We didn’t have the luxury of ramps and proper skate parks back in those days. At night we’d end up at someone’s flat, drink cider, get high, play video games and have sex.
Then Kids showed up and kind of burst our “we do what we want” bubble. But it turned out to be a good thing. Drenched in controversy, the story follows teenage girls and teenage boys through 24 hours of their lives in New York City. It was Larry Clark’s directorial debut. Up to then, he had been an acclaimed photographer, capturing the real-life grittiness of the streets, and he didn’t diverge too far from that with this film. Shot like a documentary, it was actually scripted by the then-19-year-old Harmony Korine, a skater kid Clark had met on the streets who wanted to make movies. Clark enjoyed his short so much that he asked him to write the script. So he did, in just one week.
Like Clark, this was the first time Korine had ever written a feature-length film; in fact, it was the first time pretty much any of the cast and creators had anything to do with filmmaking before. Many of the actors were plucked directly from the streets. Some were Korine’s friends, like Chloë Sevigny, who was originally going to play a small part. Jennie’s role was originally Mia Kirshner’s, but she didn’t fit in with the rest of the gang. So the role of Jennie went to Sevigny—the girl Korine had penned it for. Sevigny and Korine became a couple pretty soon. The other leading characters, notably Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), Casper (Justin Pierce), and Harold (Harold Hunter), were genuine street skaters with no acting experience at all. Rosario Dawson was just 15 years old and happened to bump into Korine while she was trying to be a dancer in a Vibe commercial. Life-changing moments can happen just like that, for better or worse.
The controversy was centred on just how realistic the movie was. The kids in the film were very young, some only 12 or 13 and really smoking weed in some scenes. While the sex was staged, it looked authentic, so many critics considered it exploitative or even bordering on child pornography. For others, it was a wake-up call to what kids were really up to out there—and I would disagree that it was just in the urban areas of cities. This stuff was going on in teenagers’ lives everywhere; in the cities, the suburbs, even your quaint country villages.
So much is explored narratively in the 24 hours of these kids’ lives, even if it feels like they do very little all day. We watch them move around the streets of New York but never take notice of the buildings, scenery, or anyone who isn’t in their bubble. Much like how the kids themselves see the world at that age, totally enveloped in their own egos, they could be anywhere; it’s all just grey concrete and living day by day.
There is a plot though, and a bleak one at that. As an adult, I watched Kids again for the first time in over 20 years, and through very different eyes—the eyes of a mother and the eyes of a girl who lived through this. Some scenes are way more problematic than I considered them at age 16, and looking back at that naive version of me is sad and scary. What happens in the film is the norm for some kids, and we didn’t realise it was wrong.
The film starts with sex and ends with it. Telly makes out on a bed with a 12-year-old girl. He’s a few years older than her and convinces her to have sex with him, reassuring her she won’t get pregnant and that he loves her and she is beautiful. She is a virgin up to this point. After he coldly sows his oats, he leaves and boasts to his mate Casper of his sexual experience and tells him that he’s taken to only having sex with virgins. They reckon that girls always remember their first time, so for Telly, being several girls’ “first” makes him unforgettable—even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.
They walk across the city on the hunt for food, alcohol, and drugs. They rob a local store for the booze and make their way to their mate Paul’s house. The gang of lads watch skateboarding videos, smoke weed and talk about their sexual prowess, how they don’t care about using protection and aren’t worried about catching an STD. It’s clear that none of these boys have any ambition to do anything other than drink, get high, and have sex. They live day by day; Telly, in particular, only cares about who or what he’s going to ejaculate into next. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a gang of girls also talk about sex. In contradiction to the boys’ beliefs about their attitudes to sex, they are nonchalant about it too, some of them not even remembering how they lost their virginity or with whom.
Ruby and Jennie get tested for STDs, as Ruby has slept with quite a few boys and often without using protection. Jennie has only had sex once but goes along with Ruby to keep her company. Ruby’s test comes back negative. Jennie’s test comes back positive. The only boy she’s had sex with is Telly. Jennie was one of his virgin conquests. Now he and many others are going to feel the effects of his risky behaviour.
Kids was the first time I had seen HIV and AIDS affecting straight kids my age on the silver screen. Somehow it was a shock—I had never really considered it happening. Yes, I had been educated about STDs, and chlamydia, herpes, crabs, and warts were common worries among my friends. Protection was often used for this reason, but that soon became less of a concern once you had been dating (and having sex with) someone for a couple of weeks. To say that the film struck fear into my heart is an understatement, and whether Larry Clarke intended it to or not, it totally made me take stock of my own behaviour.
After Jennie learns of her diagnosis, she sets about trying to find Telly to let him know, presumably so that he can also get tested and not pass it on to anyone else. Telly unknowingly carries on as usual, going to his mother’s house where she is taking care of her new baby and stealing money from her purse. While we are mostly considering the young girls that Telly has had sex with, who are literally children themselves and who should have their lives ahead of them, we also need to consider his mother and baby sibling, who are also at risk. What is brilliant about Clarke’s direction is that the moral of the story is all contained within the subtle dialogue. So many directors make movies about teenagers that seem so elevated beyond their years, those who will get up on tables and deliver a speech that could rouse a whole generation. But that never happens in real life. Most kids would laugh at such a spectacle and take the piss out of that person forever.
The kids use skateboards as transport across New York. They hang out in Washington Square Park, talk about sex some more, smoke more weed, do some tricks, and taunt a gay couple walking through the park for no reason. Then Casper carelessly bumps into a man walking through the park, who flips on him. Within seconds all the boys are piling on this guy. Harold smashes him across the head with a skateboard, and Casper delivers the final blow with his board. We don’t find out if they killed the man, but it is quite possible, as they gave him a hell of a beating. The man they attacked is black, but this is not fueled by racial hatred. Many of the gang are black kids. Harold, who delivered the first hit, is black. These kids wouldn’t have noticed his skin colour, and that, in the most twisted of ways, is a positive. This was more about youth versus adulthood, even if the guy was barely out of his teens himself.
While most of the other stuff in the film rang true for me, I can honestly say that in my youth, our little group would never, ever have beaten anyone up. Fights just never happened. If anyone made a homophobic or racist comment they would be ridiculed for it, and they’d go way down in everyone’s estimations until they moved on to new friends or learned from their mistake. Yeah, we might have been the outcasts on the surface, but underneath it all, we were mostly morally good kids. And we all grew up to be decent adults, too, each of us successful in our own artistic ways—we are writers, musicians, tattoo artists, filmmakers…I could go on and on. Kids definitely did not help our reputation back then. People always assumed we were up to no good, that we were a threat, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We were the left-leaning, chilled folk. This cannot be said for Telly or Casper.
Telly is every mother’s nightmare; the boy who would somehow lure your little girl into having sex with him, then ditch them, leaving a broken heart and a shattered ego. You’d never understand why; he’s not a looker, and his voice is whiny, crude, and grating. What did they see in him? Well, girls don’t necessarily fall for the best-looking guy; they often (and yes, this is a sweeping generalisation, I know) go for the pack leader or the boy who tells them what they want to hear or will just make them feel that bit cooler in his company. These are just kids, remember—curious kids, impatient and willing to experiment and experience everything. How much you hate Telly throughout the film is a huge compliment to Leo Fitzpatrick’s performance. He’d never acted before but was thoroughly convincing in this role.
Likewise, Justin Pierce’s Casper became an icon of sorts, and he really shouldn’t have. He has the looks that allow him to get away with a lot. He shoplifts from a grocery store, takes a piss on a footpath, and joins in the beating of a man that likely kills him. But some scenes do show the boy’s virtue. Telly and Casper look blankly at a street musician and his peculiar, dancing sidekick as they play a song. Based on all the obscenity that has been spat from their mouths up to this point, you expect the worst to happen to the guy. Instead, Casper says, “Man, this guy’s really good, yo!” Amid their decrepit lives in the bowels of the NY subway system, these two ruthless boys feel something…nice. A few minutes later, when a black beggar with no legs comes riding along on a skateboard we again expect the lads to spit at him or swear at him. But no, Casper pulls out the loose change from his pocket and gives them to the man. Was it the fact that he is an amputee using a skateboard to get around that makes him worthy of their rare kindness? There is a glimmer of hope for them, after all. Sadly it doesn’t last, and in the final scene, it is Casper, not Telly, who commits the most heinous crime of all.
Jennie and Ruby continue looking for and just missing Telly. Of course, Jennie has no clue of his intentions to find a girl he’d set his sights on—a pretty 13-year-old girl named Darcy—so that he could take her virginity. It is a race against the clock for us, the viewer, praying that their paths meet before any more damage is done. The girls continue their journey across town and meet some of the same characters that the boys have already interacted with that day, letting you know that the girls are getting closer to the target. Jennie is given a pill while she is at a nightclub looking for Telly. It’s a downer, which makes her very groggy and dissociative, slowing the pace of the hunt.
Eventually, they all meet at their friend Steve’s place, where Jennie finds Darcy and Telly having sex. She didn’t get there in time, and she fails to tell Telly the news. Why? There are a few possible reasons. First, she’s so drugged up she can’t make sense of it all, and second, she is the type of girl who would remember her first sexual partner. It’s always painful to see a boy you’re into with someone else. Third, she perhaps thinks that the damage was done, so why stop them? Jennie is a victim, and however she behaved at that moment was an accumulation of all the pain and horror she’d been through that day. It takes guts to take an HIV diagnosis on the chin and do your best to stop anyone else from being put in the same boat, but at this point, the girl is broken.
Jennie passes out on the sofa, and Casper rapes her while she’s sleeping. It is troubling not only because it’s rape and not just because Casper could unwittingly contract HIV. It’s also alarming because Casper doesn’t think that there’s anything wrong with what he’s doing. As he peels off Jenny’s underwear and climbs on top of her, he whispers, “Shh. Shh. It’s me—Casper. Don’t worry,” as if it’s OK that he’s forcing himself on a passed-out girl without her consent, purely because they know each other. Casper is so used to taking what he wants—like the bottle of whiskey from the grocery store—that even sex is something he just takes without permission. Girls are like objects for consumption to him, not people in their own right.
While the rape of Jennie is deeply disturbing, equally awful is how Telly coerces Darcy into losing her virginity to him. He brings Darcy into a softly-lit bedroom and uses the same lines he used on the other girl earlier that day. “But I’m scared, Telly,” she says, trying to end things diplomatically, but Telly won’t back down. “I don’t want you to hurt me,” she says. “It won’t hurt, I promise,” he says. Soon, they begin to have sex, but even as Darcy tells him repeatedly, “It hurts! It hurts!” Telly continues anyway. Guys: When a girl tells you, “it hurts,” you need to stop straight away. At this point it’s no longer an act of shared enjoyment, but self-gratification at the expense of some else’s suffering, and you have just gone into a vile and disgusting place—the place of child molesters and, well, rapists.
That this part of the film is not widely considered a rape scene is troubling and highlights the murky world of acquaintance rape. Yes, the girl appears to have consented at first. But was she pressured into having sex? Yes. Did she want to have sex? At that point, no. Perhaps if the film were released today, we would look at this scene differently and immediately define Telly’s actions as sexual assault. Or perhaps we wouldn’t. While dozens of college campus assaults take place every year, it seems that some young men just aren’t getting the memo.
It’s important to talk about it because, yes, Kids is a bleak and unsettling film, but the distorted mindsets of the characters need to be discussed. Kids today are still just trying to steer through the fun, probably awkward, definitely embarrassing, hugely consequential world of finding themselves and learning about their sexual selves. Did I consider that Telly raped Darcy back in 1995? No, I did not. I realise that kids these days are far more clued up than I was—this was pre-internet time, where we learned everything from experience, not what you read about or looked at on the web.
Kids is not a film that anyone could enjoy watching. It was never meant to be that. Larry Clark and Harmony Korine purely highlighted what real life was like for kids in America and all over the world, what they had to deal with on a daily basis. The social injustice they faced, the dangers of unsafe sex, the lack of hope so many kids had at ever making something of themselves if they came from a poor background. Like Trainspotting painted a realistic picture of heroin abuse and addiction, Kids showcased a youth culture that most people wanted to ignore. Once you have seen this film, it will never leave you. For that reason, I believe it should be shown to high school kids to deter them from making similar mistakes—even privileged kids with sheltered upbringings can and do find themselves in situations like these; I know I did and I didn’t have a hard childhood.
Kids built the acting careers of Chloe Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Rosario Dawson. Harmony Korine is now a successful filmmaker in his own right, and Larry Clark went on to make another nine films, including the equally controversial Bully and Ken Park. Sadly, not all of the cast had a happy ending, with Justin Pierce taking his own life in 2000 and Harold Hunter dying of a drug-related heart attack in 2006. The soundtrack to the film, curated by Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, is one of my favourite and most-listened-to albums of all time.
While Kids was very much a snapshot of the time, it manages to also be timeless and in that sense, these kids will never grow up. We know now that people can live long lives with HIV if they undergo antiretroviral treatment, but back in ’95, scientists were only just discovering the medicines that could treat the disease. We can only guess what the future held for the kids in the film and wonder how they would each deal with their diagnoses.
The morning after, Casper wakes up and says, “Jesus Christ, what happened?” and it hits you hard that these kids really have no comprehension of the consequences they may face for their actions, and neither did I at their age. Looking back, it is scary, and I am thankful that I was given the chance to grow up.