The first time that I ever saw Kids, the 1995 directorial debut of Larry Clark, my initial response was to wonder what the Hell everyone was talking about.
Seriously, I couldn’t understand a word that anyone was saying. The two main characters — 15 year-old Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) and his friend Casper (Justin Pierce) — talked almost constantly. In fact, Telly even narrated the film. But both of them had such thick Northern accents and both of them were so inarticulate that I spent 75% of the movie trying to understand what they were going on about. (Add to that, Casper is pretty much either drunk or stoned through the entire film.) Don’t get me wrong. I understood enough to know what was going on in the movie. I knew that Telly was obsessed with having sex with virgins and that he didn’t know that he was HIV positive. I knew that Casper considered himself to be the “dopest ghost in town,” and that he ended the film by coming out of his daze long enough to look straight at the camera and ask, “What the fuck happened?” But a lot of the dialogue in-between got lost as a result of Telly growling and Casper slurring.
So, when I rewatched Kids for this review, I turned on the close captioning so that I could read what it was that Telly and Casper were actually saying to each other while they were walking around New York City. After a few minutes, I started to really wish that I had just remained ignorant. Seriously, you may hate Telly but you’ll hate even more once you understand everything that he actually says during the opening scenes of the film. Telly is literally one of the most disgusting pervs to ever be at the center of a motion picture. “Virgins,” he announces at the start of the film, “I love them!” He also infects them and what’s truly disturbing is that you get the feeling that, even if he knew he was HIV positive, Telly wouldn’t change his behavior at all.
Reportedly, Leo Fitzpatrick got death threats after starring in Kids. Because he was making his film debut in Kids and because the film’s cast was reportedly made up of actual street kids, many viewers assumed that Fitzpatrick was playing himself. Fitzpatrick is one of the few members of the cast to have actually maintained an acting career after Kids and, by most accounts, he’s not Telly. That said, Telly is such a demonic character and Fitzpatrick does such a good job playing him that, admittedly, it is strange to see him subsequently play characters who are far different from Telly. (His performance as faux hitman in Clark’s Bully is one of the highlights of that film.)
Justin Pierce also continued to act after Kids, though his efforts to maintain a career were reportedly hampered by his own personal demons. Sadly, Pierce committed suicide in 2000, hanging himself in Las Vegas. As raw as it may be, Pierce probably gives the best performance in Kids. I’m sure that some would be tempted to say that Pierce was just playing himself but there’s also a sly humor to his performance that isn’t necessarily present in the script. Casper is a despicable character who not only possibly beats a man to death but who also rapes one of his so-called friends when she’s passed out on a coach. At times, Casper seems to almost be brain-dead. (We’re told that he’s been sniffing glue since the 4th grade.) But then there’s a few scenes where we get hints of who Casper could have been if he hadn’t fried his brain.
(For instance, it’s interesting to note that, alone among the male characters, Casper is the only one who occasionally behaves in a generous manner. He may steal a piece of fruit but he then gives it to a young girl waiting outside of a dilapidated building. In the famous scene in which a legless man asks for money while singing, “I have no legs/I have no legs,” Casper gives him money while Telly rolls his eyes. Casper may be awful but, unlike Telly, he’s not a total sociopath.)
(It’s also interesting to note that, while we meet Telly’s mom and hear from her that Telly has a strained relationship with his dad, we never meet or hear about Casper’s family. While Kids may be critical of Telly and Casper and their friends, it’s true scorn is reserved for the frequently unseen adults who all either seem to either be in denial or just incredibly callous as far as their children are concerned.)
And then there’s Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, both making their film debut in Kids. They play friends who, at the start of the movie, both go to a clinic to get the results of their HIV tests. The promiscuous Ruby (Dawson) is negative. Jennie (Sevigny), however, is positive. Since she’s only had sex with one person, she knows that she caught it from Telly. What little plot that Kids has deals with Jennie’s efforts to track down Telly before he has sex with another virgin. From the minute that Jennie starts searching for Telly, you know that it’s a pointless mission. Even if Jennie did manage to track down Telly, it’s doubtful he would listen to her.
Kids was the directorial debut of Larry Clark. It was also the screenwriting debut of Harmony Korine and reportedly, it was considered to be very shocking and controversial when it was first released. I have to admit that, even speaking as someone who grew up far away from the streets of New York on which Kids was cast and filmed, I’ve never been that shocked by Kids. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a raw and powerful film and the scene where Sevigny sits in a cab and repeats to herself that she’s not going to die brought tears to my eyes. But, no — the idea of kids and teenagers having sex, doing drugs, and getting violent is no longer shocking (if it ever was).
It’s just another day.