Like a million movies before it, Kids starts with a kiss. But none quite like this graphic game of tonsil hockey. The boy, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), is 17 and eager for a more intimate exchange of bodily fluids. “Know what I want?” he asks the girl (Sarah Henderson), about 14 to judge by her looks and the stuffed animals in her bedroom. “Yeah,” she says. “You wanna fuck me.” The girl is a virgin, scared (“I don’t want a baby”) and pitifully susceptible to sweet talk, of which the skinny, slurred-of-speech Telly — wearing white socks and no condom — is a master: “It’ll feel good. . . . I care about you. . . . It won’t hurt.” He pumps away with all the romantic fervor of a recruit doing push-ups. For Telly, HIV positive though he doesn’t know it yet, sex is a contest. He collects virgins. Telly brags to Casper (Justin Pierce) about busting two cherries in one day, letting his envious pal sniff his fingers, which are fresh from his latest conquest. It’s not fucking, it’s telling about it that really turns Telly on.
So begins this astonishment of a movie from Larry Clark, the 52-year-old photographer making his debut as a director in a feature with the same raw, unsettlingly erotic power you find in his photo books of outlaw youth: Tulsa (1971) and Teenage Lust (1983). Clark, a former druggie who in the mid-’70s spent 19 months in prison for shooting a man, is now a father of two who sees his film as a wakeup call. Cautionary tales aren’t new. What sets Kids apart as daringly original, touching and alive is its authenticity.
Set in New York City during a single summer day, Kids follows Telly and his aimless gang as they swing their skateboards through the streets, toking, stealing, rocking to music, chasing girls, baiting gays, beating a man in a park, skinny-dipping in a pool, crashing a party and talking shit about their two overriding passions: skateboards and sex.
The street language, a poetic scramble of funny and fierce, is the handiwork of the gifted Harmony Korine, 19 when he wrote the screenplay. Clark met the young writer three years ago while doing a photo study of skateboarders in Washington Square Park, in New York. Their shared aversion to Hollywood slickness created an immediate rapport. Though rigorously crafted, Korine’s script has the ripple of keen improvisation. Adding to the documentary effect is the stunning hand-held camera work of Eric Edwards (My Own Private Idaho). The only conventional plot element involves Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), a virgin who Telly had previously deflowered and who spends the film trying to track him down with the news that he has recklessly infected her with HIV.
The young cast is dynamite. Fitzpatrick delivers an exceptional performance, making Telly a hypnotic figure of oddball charm and sudden malice. It was Korine’s skate-kid friends, mostly amateurs ranging in age from 12 to 19, whom Clark recruited to act in the film. Even when grim reality bears down relentlessly, their faces hold you in thrall. Sevigny has the only developed female role in a film of virginal victims. It’s the guy culture of hot tempers and hard-ons that fascinates Clark and Korine. Still, you can’t miss Casper’s longing for Telly, the master he follows like a puppy. Pierce is terrific in the role, finding the hurt that Casper hides behind his trash-mouth bravado. He calls himself Casper the Horny Ghost because he isn’t getting any. “Your mom’s tit looks real good,” says Casper, catching a glimpse of Telly’s mother nursing. A glimpse is all we get of parents in Kids. Their absence is one of the darts tossed at parental neglect.
The absence of love is more fully indicted. Telly can mouth the right words, but he uses his dick to wound, not to connect. In a scene of piercing sadness, Casper catches Telly and his latest virgin sacrifice naked and asleep in a bedroom. Her body clinging to his makes for a picture of innocent beauty. Casper wants that closeness. How to get it? His only model is Telly, which means tricks and cruelty. Outside the bedroom, a party is winding down. Jennie sits exhausted on a sofa. Casper yanks down her panties and rapes her while four preteen boys doze beside them. It’s a harrowing image that hits like a body blow. “Jesus Christ, what happened?” says Casper. Kids raises the same question. It does so with rare artistry but without glib, comforting answers. As a result, the film is already a target for censors who call it obscene and critics who call it pretentious. Ignore the scare and sneer tactics that greet anything fresh and ferocious. Kids matters.