Kids opens with a teenage couple smooching in a manner so sloppy and uncinematic, viewers are perturbed from the start. The kiss alone is uncomfortable to watch but what follows is an increasingly disturbing and voyeuristic journey through the life of teenagers in mid-’90s New York. Groundbreaking in its time for its realism and uncensored depiction of youth, the film—directed by Larry Clark, written by Harmony Korine, and produced by Gus Van Sant—continues to provoke 20 years after its release with its shocking subject matter and accurate—often depressingly so—portrayal of kids.
Focused on 16-year-old “virgin surgeon” Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), his friend Casper (Justin Pierce), and their skater chums, the film gives us a glimpse into their life in a 24-hour window. Here’s a quick itinerary of that day: smoking weed, stealing 40s from bodegas by stuffing the bottles in JNCO cargo pants, beating up a black dude in the park, harassing a gay couple, trying to steal the virginity of two girls in one day (to quote Telly, “to have a virgin suck your dick—it’s so basic”), taking a quick pit stop at home to kick the family cat and say hi to a mom who’s breastfeeding and smoking at the same time, doing drugs in the club, telling a girl her body is “dope,” and raping an unconscious girl on a couch while a bunch of kids surround the scene, too faded to function.
When the film—a directorial debut for Clark and Korine’s first screenplay—was released in 1995, Variety claimed it was “poised to become one of the most controversial American films ever made” (Korine followed Kids with his film Ken Park, so Variety definitely spoke too soon.) New York magazine referred to it as “nihilistic pornography.” And the Washington Post cast it off as “child pornography disguised as a cautionary documentary,” and pondered, “except for pedophiles, it’s hard to imagine who’ll be drawn to this irresponsible Little Bo Peep show.”
In the 20 years since its release, the kids of Kids have moved on. Some pursued acting, others resumed their lives as skateboarders or created successful skate brands, a few started families, and others passed away, as was the case with the film’s stars Justin Pierce, who died of suicide in 2000, and Harold Hunter, who died from a drug overdose in 2006. After Hunter’s death, Kids actor Hamilton Harris began work on his forthcoming documentary, The Kids, which delves into the lives of the kids from Kids. Fellow Kids co-star and pro-skater, Peter Bici teamed up with Harris in Spring of 2014. They are currently raising money via Kickstarter to fund their film.
To commemorate the film’s 20th anniversary, I spoke with Kids actors Leo Fitzpatrick, Jon Abrahams, Javier Nunez, Michele Lockwood, Hamilton Harris, and Peter Bici, as well Zoo York founder and Kids title designer Eli Morgan Gesner, about making one of the most provocative films of our time.
“They Gonna Tell Their Grandkids About That Shit”
Larry Clark (above, with Justin Pierce) was already an established photographer before he started integrating with the New York skate kids in the early ’90s. At that time he was known for “Tulsa,” his 1971 book of photography showing Oklahoma teens using heroin, shooting guns, and having sex, as well as “Teenage Lust,” published in 1983. For these photo books Clark participated in the activity along with his subjects. So, when it came to preparing for “Kids,” he continued with this immersive practice—despite his age difference—and started hanging out with the teenagers of downtown New York.
When “Kids” came out, Clark told The Village Voice, “After about six months, I’m just one of the guys, they’re just totally open and honest with me, and I find out no one is using condoms. Hence the safe sex thing is ‘Let’s have sex with a virgin.’ And when I’d say, ‘What if she gets pregnant?’ they’d just say, ‘That’s not meant to be.’ But the girls do get pregnant and they have abortions and their mothers never know. And some of them get herpes the first time they have sex. You can make a list of the things that can happen to you the first time you have sex.”
Leo Fitzpatrick, “Telly”: Larry had started infiltrating the skateboard scene a few years before the film was even known about. He was really intrigued by skateboarders and knew that to earn the trust of skateboarders that he would have to hang out with them and eventually learn how to skateboard himself.