In popular culture, youth is the jewel of the Nile. It’s been placed on an impossibly high pedestal, treated as something unappreciated by those who have it, and longed for by those who are past it. Cinema has heightened that attraction, positioning youth as a unicorn drinking from an oasis’ fountain. This changed permanently 20 years ago with Kids, the train wreck no one could avert their eyes—or opinions—from. The same month that Clueless’ modernized interpretation of a Jane Austen classic served as defibrillation for the dying teen movie genre, Kids struck audiences in the face with a figurative skateboard and then wandered off indifferently. In Clueless’ world, the wealthy teenagers flirted with the notion of adulthood while protected by bubbles of affluence. At the other end of the spectrum, Kids placed teens in adult situations they were too apathetic or otherwise unprepared to deal with. They were no more than statistics waiting to expire.
Lost youth has been a Hollywood fixation for years, but in a glamorized manner protected by red tape. Kids’ nosedive into counterculture was so ugly and callously amoral that it became a must-see film on the strength of pure controversy. It made youth—the dream pop culture sold—something to be afraid of.
There was a sense of security to Hollywood’s previous forays into the world of lost youth. 1936’s Reefer Madness was an exaggerated cautionary tale about how idle hands and weed turn good kids into evil potheads, while 1955's The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause detailed the messy web that teenagers ranging from disgruntled to disaffected could get tangled in against the backdrop of an adult world that didn’t understand them. 1983’s The Outsiders harped on teens from working-class families pushed outside of society’s margins and into gangs, but the saccharine taste of its ending (and the Stevie Wonder-penned theme song) eliminated much of the edge. Later that decade, River’s Edge and Less Than Zero explored the lives of teens living dangerously, but their hedonism was regulated by MPAA ratings. Where these films raised eyebrows, Kids scared the shit out of viewers.
1995 was 12 months of limbo wedged between the Gulf War and Y2K; the L.A. Riots and the Columbine massacre. The future was uncertain, and, in the past, youth have represented a source of hope regarding that which is unwritten. The wanton hedonism that the youth in Kids engaged in suggested that they—and, in turn, the future—were doomed. They aimlessly roamed the streets of post-crack New York City, and that freedom was more influential than their preoccupied parents. In her initial New York Timesreview of the film, Janet Maslin described it as "so bleak and legitimately shocking that it makes almost any other portrait of American adolescence look like the picture of Dorian Gray."
Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), the closest thing to a main character in Kids' collage of misfits, was a teenage sociopath. Barely old enough to drive, his entire existence revolved around satisfying a near insatiable hunger for sex. Outside of that, his life had no meaning. "When you’re young, not much matters. When you find something that you care about, then that’s all you got," he says via voiceover laid atop a scene where lives are unknowingly destroyed. "Fuckin' is what I love—you take that away from me, and I really got nothin'." Unbeknownst to Telly, he was HIV-positive and left the virgins that he preyed on with death sentences after robbing them of their innocence.
But few kids living in this world were innocent. In the back-and-forth scenes that inadvertently turned teenage attitudes about sex into a battle of the sexes, the boys smoke weed, do whip-its, and trade misogyny like it’s prophecy while watching Video Days. Meanwhile, the girls discuss the intricacies of sex with the candor and expertise of grown-ass women.
In contrast with their accelerated sexual experience, the banter exposes both sides’ myopia. Despite Telly’s HIV-positive status, the boys dismiss AIDS as some urban legend. Conversely, the girls maneuver with a similar lack of trepidation, showing little concern with the potential consequences of their exploits. Kids followed them all for a 24-hour period because they were only living for the day. This simmering anarchy was the work of a creative brain trust obsessed with the world’s grotesque underbelly and the dark side of youth culture.
Kids was born of director Larry Clark and writer Harmony Korine’s mutual disdain for the status quo. Together, they conjured its confrontational presentation with the aim of creating something so brutally honest that it was innovative. Kids was deliberately unpolished, as highlighting a flawed sector of society in a tidy fashion would’ve undercut its unapologetic realism. Korine, who wrote the script as a teenager, drew from his own experience. He interacted with the phalanx who lived as recklessly as they skated and transformed Washington Square Park into a hornet's nest. The film was shot in an invasive style reminiscent of Clark’s photography, much of which focused on his own misguided younger days. Furthermore, the relentless nihilism that’s become Kids’ legacy also became the hallmark of Clark and Korine’s future work.
In the years since Kids’ release, Clark has been crowned the king of disturbing youth cinema. Another Day in Paradise gave a damaged young couple a preview of their future through an older one, should they survive that long. His third film, Bully, used the 1993 murder of Bobby Kent at the hands of "friends" and acquaintances as source material. Ken Park, which Korine wrote around the same time he penned Kids, covers similar ground: troubled youth, with graphic depictions of sex and violence. Wassup Rockers placed teen skaters rejected by society in Los Angeles, while his most recent film, The Smell of Us, dropped them in Paris.
During a recent screening of Kids, Clark attributed his continued interest in at-risk youth to "an unhappy childhood." In telling their stories, he’s telling his own, and although he’s now in his early seventies, he still identifies with restless spirits. Clark’s ability to ingratiate himself to distrustful teens made him a darker version of Christopher Lloyd’s Camp Nowhere character. Where he was the lone adult in a deviant Neverland, Korine was the Peter Pan figure.
The last two decades have made Korine a polarizing architect of stories about kids dangling from society’s fringe. Kids kicked the door open for him, leading to his directorial debut, 1997's Gummo. The Midwest replaced the big city setting, but Korine’s approach challenged viewers even more than Kids did. The film is perhaps best known in pop culture for its appearance in Belly, but viewing the surreal examination of seedy small-town life is like bathing in dirty water. Korine's subsequent work grew more experimental and deviated from youth-centric themes (Julien Donkey-Boy; Trash Humpers), but he returned to familiar territory with Spring Breakers. Instead of following four seemingly non-threatening coeds on spring break, he turned a fun escape into a descent through hell. (Only Harmony Korine could corrupt a Britney Spears song the way Spring Breakers does.) It's probably the most commercial film Korine will make, but the finished product still divided audiences. Korine wouldn’t expect anything different.
"There’ll always be a large segment of the audience that can’t deal with my films because I'm attracted to things that are morally and graphically ambiguous," he told Complex when the film was released. "I'm interested in confused things, things that have a type of chaos, things that aren't necessarily one way." Kids and its returns, both positive and negative, gave him the easel to create upon.
Prior to Kids, films largely focused on the upside of adolescence. It was a bottled fantasy, and any ventures towards the opposite end of the spectrum were calculated and low-risk. Kids dared to show how the other half lived, forcing viewers into the crumbling world of the ignored. It was a chilling reminder that youth isn't always a holy grail, it's ether if mishandled—a truth that terrified everyone, young and old. Kids made youth a disease: an affliction that was black, brown, and white; male, female, and frighteningly insouciant. The film opens and closes with tragedy, emphasizing that the characters—many of whom won’t make it to 20—were doomed from birth. It may not have aged well, but the hopelessness of its honesty has made it undeniably important. Larry Clark said he wanted to make a film that had never been made, and what he made will never be forgotten.
Julian Kimble is a contributing writer. Follow him @JRK316.