To understand my never-ending attachment to Kids, you have to do two things. First, you must take a step back from the pretentious titles that critics have awarded it—“Everyone’s favorite independent film! A raw and thrilling look at the lives of our youth! A seminal movie that defined a generation!”—and secondly, you have to understand the pull of a film that, when I was 12 and 13 years old, seemed like the softcore, and therefore accurate, representation of what being a teenager was all about. Everything about it was alluring to me: its original NC-17 rating, the amount of controversy it stirred up, the fact that it took place in NYC (where I’m from), its use of real life skate kids instead of professional actors, the intensity of its loaded plot.
My idealization of the film was what introduced me to it, but what kept me so interested in it for years goes beyond that. Kids focuses on HIV-positive 16-year-old Telly, a self-proclaimed “virgin surgeon” whose main goal throughout the movie is to bed as many virgin girls as he can. The movie intercuts scenes of Telly and his “conquests” with a day in the life of his friends and their group, including best friend Casper, with whom he roams the city, stealing from convenience stores and wandering from apartment to apartment. One of these “conquests,” Jenny (played by a fledgling Chloe Sevigny), discovers that she has had HIV transmitted to her by Telly, the only boy that she’s had sex with, and spends the film searching for him to deliver the news, only to discover him at a party deflowering yet another girl. Kids ends how it started: unsettling, eventful, and yet, just another day in the lives of the characters.
When I first watched Kids, I was enthralled by the wildness of the street culture that Larry Clark and Harmony Korine portrayed—the nomadic wandering, the drugs, the casual sex, the tribe-like attitude of the kids and the immense amount of freedom that it seemed to offer. As someone who grew up coddled, who didn’t have my first kiss until I turned 15, and didn’t understand what my friends were talking about whenever they mentioned drugs, the universe of Kids was one that seemed unreal, one from which my mind managed to erase all the awful parts and even romanticize to an extent.
In celebration of the twentieth anniversary, I watched the film again and found myself depressed, but I couldn’t figure out why. I paused it twenty minutes in and didn’t return until a few days later. A comment on the review of the film shed some light on the situation for me:
"The most disquieting part of watching this film as a teenaged male, is seeing aspects of these ‘kids’ in my friends... and in myself.”
One thing that has changed too much for me to ignore is that the younger version of me saw Kids as a voyeuristic experience—16-year-old me sees it as a relatable movie. I see people that I know (and people that I have lost) in the sex-crazed, thrill-seeking, junked-up characters. I recognize their nihilism and I greet it uneasily because now, after all these years, I know its burden all too well. As Telly says at one point in the film, “When you’re young, not much matters. When you find something that you care about, then that’s all you got.” What once seemed like an easygoing way of looking at life now seems like an escape from reality in the worst way possible. What I once saw as freedom has now become a cage, and despite the fact that we still have many differences between all of us, I find myself locked in it with the kids of Kids.
It doesn’t matter that Kids was released before I was conceived or even conceptualized, or that “those skate kids” (I imagine my mother saying it with disgust) have been diminishing so quickly that there are only a few of their modern counterparts roaming the city streets. It doesn’t matter that the issue of HIV is less prevalent now and that it is not necessarily a death sentence anymore. It doesn’t even matter that, as the movie’s screenwriter Harmony Korine said, “It would be impossible to make that film now.” Because even though our lives are not perfect matches or even relatable in any way, we still have the occasional shared experience; it’s still a point of reference so that one can look at it and say, "Oh whoa, I’m not alone! This isn’t as weird as I thought it was.” It provides a path for other kids like me to traverse on, to go from having your mother bring you food to, say, watching someone snort coke off a bathroom floor at a party. The truth is, Kids transcends all of its details and represents a common teenage experience—one of confusion and misunderstood tragedy, loneliness and finding kinship among other misfits. With Kids, as much as it scares me to see the similarities between my adolescence and the movie, it feels like home. Always has, always will.
Britney Franco is a 16 year old writer for Rookie Mag.