This week 20 years ago, director Larry Clark released his controversial and debut film “Kids.” The low budget film portrayed the gritty lifestyles of New York City teens during the height of the AIDs epidemic and was the source of widespread controversy due to its frank portrayal of underage drug use and sex.
“I wanted to make a film that had never been made before,” Clark told The Hollywood Reporter in a recent retrospective of the film.
“Kids” launched the careers of actresses Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny, but it also got an NC-17 and a reputation for being a movie that was sensationalist to a fault. The film was a jaw-dropping experience for audiences accustomed to teen films that were typically light comedies, and some critics warmed to its unpretentious honesty.
“The untrained actors echo the screenplay’s naturalism, and they have none of the feral posturing that often makes tough teenagers seem glamorous on screen. These kids aren’t stylish, pretty or terribly expressive … ,” Janet Maslin wrote in her original New York Times 1995 review of the film. “You could find their counterparts on any New York corner, and if you see ‘Kids,’ you’ll never look at them in the same way again.”
And yet Maslin warned that the film “nonstop profanity, drug use and very graphic sexual references” would distrub some teenagers and “adults as well.” Other critics were far more severe. The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, for instance, called it a “virtually child pornography disguised as a cautionary documentary.”
“Set in a nihilistic never-never land, this smutty film follows the adventures of 16-year-old Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), a pimply Peter Pan who specializes in deflowering ‘little baby girls.’ Except for pedophiles, it’s hard to imagine who’ll be drawn to this irresponsible Little Bo Peep show,” she wrote
Twenty years later, “Kids” is more widely praised as a vivid portrait teen life in New York City during the 1990s. A film that was once a pariah has morphed into something akin to a cultural touchstone.
In 2010, popular hip-hop artist Mac Miller released his a mixtape called “K.I.D.S.,” which pays homage to the the urban teenage aesthetic in Pittsburgh, while using key soundbites from the Clark film.
In May, the prominent New York skateboard company Supreme also paid tribute to “Kids.” The company released shirts featuring memorable scens from the film, along with one of its signature quotes – “Jesus Christ. What happened?” – on the back. Clark hung out at Supreme’s store frequently during the casting of the “Kids,” in order find teenage extras for the film, including the late Harold Hunter.
“Kids” continues to be rediscovered by new generations of film buffs. Clark told The Hollywood Reporter that the material struck a chord with him because “I had an unhappy childhood.”
“It just kind of became my territory,” he added.