Soleil Moon Frye has lived a life on camera, becoming a household name as a kid actor while starring as the precocious Punky Brewster in the ’80s sitcom of the same name. When the show ended, however, she was left to navigate life as a teenager with the added pressure of still being a fascination to the press and public. She grew up and spoke out — about teen drug use and her decision to have breast reduction surgery. All on camera. She tried to find herself, leaving Hollywood for college in New York to study filmmaking, camera in hand. Not to paraphrase Alanis, but she loved, she lost, she learned. You know, life. And she documented a whole lot of it in a way that might feel more common now, but which was uncommon for someone who grew up in the less technologically lush ’90s.
For years, Frye kept her videotapes, audio recordings, and journals in a box. But something changed four years ago while she was planning a documentary and exploring how reliable a narrator our memories can be. The end result is Kid90 (which is now streaming on Hulu), a far more raw and personal project than Frye intended, but also a fascinating slice of ’90s nostalgia filled with raw footage of her and a whole lot of familiar faces that were in her orbit as a fun-loving teen in ’90s Hollywood. Fun is the key word here and the thing that you walk away feeling most nostalgic for. No matter when you grew up and who you hung out with, you can almost surely relate to the easy laughs and worry-free moments of your own awkward teen years. But it’s Frye’s reflection of those good times and also the more challenging times that gives the doc its soul.
While many of us (myself included) often try to avoid lingering on our past trauma lest it catch up to us and weigh us down, Frye is willing to sift through hers with the idea that she can, as she says, turn her pain into art. This while trying to better understand her memories and a life formed by her experiences. We spoke with Frye about that journey, about letting go of guilt, how the sexualization of teens then and now crosses the generational divide, and about finding her way back home.
What was the prompt for this exploration?
I had originally started it as a documentary that was meant to be about anything but me. It was not originally going to be a personal coming-of-age story. I was fascinated by the idea of memory and if things happen the way I remembered them. And I also think on a subconscious level, I had put so many of the tapes away. And as much as I had lived this very joyful, fun, amazing life, there was also pain that was under the surface of some of my experiences. And so, about four years ago, I wanted to know if things happened the way I remembered them because I remembered so much of it being so joyful. And then I went on this journey of exploration that really changed my life forever.
It takes a lot of courage to look back. I know, me personally, I am very much of the keep it in a box, move forward mindset. I’m guessing it took some time to get to a place you’d be comfortable calling some of those memories into question, right?
Yeah. I mean, for me, I wasn’t planning, again, on it being this personal experience, so I literally had locked it all away. And then in the process of opening it up, I discovered so much that was there that I wasn’t planning on finding or discovering. And once you unlock those experiences, you can’t put them back, nor would I want to, because they were part of my transformation, of me rediscovering who I once was. It was almost like I left a chronological blueprint for me to find my way back home.
Obviously, you’ve talked about your life in the past with other projects, other documentaries, books, and talk show appearances through the years. I’m curious, the level of catharsis that you feel from that, does it ever match what you’re hoping for, or is it a mixed bag?
I mean, for me, it was incredibly cathartic, it was incredibly painful, and it was also incredibly beautiful. And the way that I look at it is that, my parents had always raised us to be fighters, to be survivors, that when you have a painful experience, you turn it into art. And I really look at it as everything having happened for me and not to me. So it was a culmination of all of it — the messiness, the joy, the love, all of it — that’s brought me to right here right now, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
And at this point, is it [telling your story] more of a rewarding feeling than in the past?
It’s been such a rewarding experience, because it’s stripped me down to my truth. It’s been this process of peeling back the onion, and peeling it back to my core essence, where this was not about it being about doing it for anyone else. You know what I mean? There’s so much teen approval that I think you hear me seeking as a little girl in it, when I’m going, “Am I my pretty? Am I ugly? Am I this? Am I that?” And the little girl inside that wanted approval from everyone else, which I think is so what the human experience is, of so many teenagers and so many adults, right? Who doesn’t want to be loved?
In the course of this experience, I realized not only did I love people, but as I say, I didn’t realize how loved back I was. And so, the illumination of that has been so deeply profound, and also to try to piece it together and just show the blueprint of what was there, and to get to a place, where I could just speak my truth and not be dependent on anyone else’s validation of that, do you know what I mean? That was an incredibly rewarding feeling, because it came with a great deal of pain and reflection, and yet a great deal of courage. You know, I keep thinking about what are my feelings as this is about to come out? And my dad always had this word that he would say, which was “anticipatory”, and I really feel anticipatory about it. [Laughs] And at the same time, I feel really proud to have done that shadow work.
You had mentioned in the film at a couple of points, feeling some level of guilt over certain things that had happened. Some of the losses [of friends] and not necessarily hearing people in that time when … and who could expect that from a teenager, to be able to be that present? But I’m curious how you’re dealing with that, processing that, from when the film wrapped to now. Are you still carrying that or have you let yourself off the hook a little?
There was a great deal of guilt that I felt and just wanting to be there more, or wanting to have seen it more. I think about Jonathan Brandis and just how much I loved him. And I love his parents so much, and we talk on a regular basis, and they love him so much. And sometimes no matter how much love is around us, still, we can’t always take away someone’s pain.
And so, I have really processed, and I’m still in the process of processing, but I really do feel like it has been a really cathartic experience. And now I look at, okay, how do I continue to live my life, where I can listen a little more, hear a little more, and try to be more compassionate and make… I love that the teenage girl in me writes that letter and says, “Have you made your life worthy? Who are you today?” And asks all of those questions, that I feel that I now want to live with a deeper purpose.
What’s the interaction with this footage and the story of the documentary with your kids? Have they seen it?
I’ve shown the girls, which has been amazing, and they’ve really been my supporter. As parents, you’re like, “No, I’ve been through it.” And they’re like, “No, you haven’t…” And it’s like, “no, I really have, I’m going to show you.” And so, it has created a really beautiful conversation for my daughters and me. And also, they were such a part of it. They did research. One of my daughters shot it. I mean, they have really been a part of the process. And I think that’s really important, especially when you’re living in the edit bay, day and night. And when there were a lot of days that I was away from home, for them to know that what I was working on was something that was so deeply important to my growth. And also, because I changed so much through the process, and it was such a transformation and it was impossible for it not to be because I had never really reflected on any of this. So it brought up so much, and I was going through such a transformation, and they were seeing it. And so, I thought it was important for them to have an understanding of it.
I think it’s really interesting also, because it really obviously directly connects to what people are experiencing right now, as they grow up. They have access to all this technology. They’re on camera constantly. They’re broadcasting their thoughts constantly. Big question, but do you think the generational divide is overstated and that there’s more that connects us?
I mean, I look at the stage of me going through puberty as a really clear indication of something that is so relevant today… and the ways in which the objectification that was happening around me at the time… It’s been fascinating in recent months, even just to hear the plethora of [ways that] this conversation, which I think is so important to have… I was a little girl, right? And then I started developing, and it’s as if sometimes they want to keep you in that box of being a little girl. And yet, we grow up, and we go through puberty and we go through these awkward stages.
And the way in which I envision it now for teens, being magnified so much by social media… I think it is more important now than ever that we have these conversations. That we talk about it through documentaries, that we in the media have these dialogues, and that we have these dialogues at home. Because really, more than ever, I feel that it is so important to the mental health and wellbeing of young people that we have these dialogues. It’s a really important conversation to have, and it’s our responsibility to have it. So as far as the divide, I think so many similarities still exist and are just completely magnified on a whole other level.
I agree. It’s interesting because it’s almost like this project is an unintentional bookend to the Britney Spears documentary. I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but there are some similarities specifically with that topic and not just the way that women are objectified, but also…
The sexualization, but also the malice that the media comes at people with, referring specifically to the Britney Spears thing with Justin Timberlake and how much she was made to be a villain and what that does. Have you seen that documentary?
I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m familiar with it. And my daughters have seen it, and we had conversations around it. I’m grateful that documentarians are telling these stories and that journalists are shedding light on these stories. And I think it’s really important, and it’s definitely on the top of my list of documentaries that I want to watch.
Does this experience solidify the want to continue down this road as a documentary filmmaker? Are you working on any other projects?
I love documentaries, and it’s interesting, because the [previous] documentary that I made [Sonny Boy], I also locked away in a vault for many, many years. And so, now I plan on adding some pieces to it and finally sharing it with the world. My father had gone through Alzheimer’s, and I drove cross country with him and retraced his history. And I realize now that I wasn’t ready to share it with the world. So I tend to work on these projects that span over multiple decades, which I love. So I want to continue making documentaries. And then I am so grateful for the fact that I get to also be doing what I love with acting and this incredible experience with Punky Brewster. And being able to do the continuation has just been a dream come true. And so, I really feel like I am living a dream in that way. And then the amazing work I get to do with CORE, which is a non-profit so close to my heart, where we’ve done over half a million vaccinations and testing of over 4.8 million people across the country and nationwide. I mean, it’s awe-inspiring. So to continue being of service to others is really important to me too.
‘Kid90’ is streaming now on Hulu. ‘Punky Brewster’ is streaming on Peacock.