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20 Reasons Why ‘Kids’ is an American Masterpiece

20 Reasons Why 'Kids' is an American Masterpiece

READ MORE: Here’s How ‘Kids’ Happened 20 Years Ago

1. It completely changed the “teen movie” genre. 

Larry Clark is said to have set out to “make the Great American Teenage Movie, like the Great American Novel.” Before “Kids,” teen movies were relegated to the soft high school comedy (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Dazed and Confused”). “Kids” put a much darker, grittier spin on the high school story, opting for the depraved underbelly of teenage counterculture rather than the meet-cute suburban sex comedy that largely comprised the genre.

2. It helped normalize non-actors. 

Along with “Slacker,” Richard Linklater’s 1991 portrait of Austin youth, “Kids” was among the first films to showcase the merits of using so-called “street kids” and other non-actors to enhance authenticity. Clark discovered Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson from the streets of New York; he also cast skateboarders Leo Fitzpatrick (Telly) and Justin Pierce (Casper) after watching them perform poorly executed tricks at a city park. 

3. It legitimized the music video and commercial director. 

During the 1990s, directors like Spike Jonze and David Fincher began their careers by directing music videos and promotional spots, eventually transitioning over to feature films. As its main characters are steeped in street and skateboard culture, “Kids” features one such spot during a scene towards the beginning of the film. The spot in question is called “Video Days” and was created by Jonze, who produced it for a company called Blind Skateboards. Considered one of the most influential skate videos of all time, “Video Days” can be seen playing on the television screen in the background at the apartment where Telly and Paul are hanging out with a group of friends. Although “Video Days” is never brought up in the “Kids” narrative, its inclusion predicates Jonze’s influence as a director even at this early point in his career. Meanwhile, the movie itself reflects the funky subculture of the music video age.

4. The soundtrack is a character in its own right. 

Because “Kids” was shot documentary-style, the vast majority of the music heard throughout the film is diegetic, or sound that occurs in the characters’ world. Featuring a blend of tracks by A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys and John Coltrane, among others, the music in the film is complimentary to its plot — a character itself.

5. It transformed 52-year-old photographer Larry Clark into an internationally renowned filmmaker. 

Clark spent the first half of his life taking still photographs, a skill he learned from his mother, who photographed babies for a living. After he returned from serving in Vietnam, Clark embarked on a professional career as a photographer, most notably publishing two collections, “Tulsa” and “Teenage Lust,” as books. In both of these collections, Clark incorporated graphic depictions of drug use and sexual activity. This was an aesthetic approach that he brought with him when he decided to make “Kids.” The film went on to premiere at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and garnered four Independent Spirit Award nominations, including one for Clark in the category of Best First Feature. Over the years, images of excess have continued to shape the vast majority of Clark’s work, including “Bully,” “Ken Park,” “Marfa Girl” and “The Smell of Us.”

6. It deconstructed the ingenue. 

The ingenue archetype had mostly fallen out of favor by the 1960s. In the 1980s, however, it experienced a rousing revival in the form of characters played by actress Molly Ringwald in popular John Hughes films such as “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink.” In contrast with Sam in “Sixteen Candles,” Claire in “The Breakfast Club” and Andie in “Pretty in Pink,” the two lead female characters in “Kids,” Jennie and Ruby, are anything but ingenues. When we are introduced to them at the beginning of the film, Jennie and Ruby have been sexually active for some time and are in the midst of swapping stories with a few other girlfriends about their respective sexual experiences. The illusion of the ingenue is destroyed even further through Telly’s misogynistic behavior towards the virginal pre-teens he takes to bed. Every time he has sex with a virgin, it’s as if we are literally bearing witness to the destruction of the ingenue before our very own eyes.

7. It’s a microcosm for the violent disorder that characterized the biggest events of 1995. 

The United States has seen better years in its history than 1995, which kicked off with the start of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. A media circus surrounded the proceedings from the very beginning and dragged on until October, when the jury proceeded to shock a riveted nation with the announcement that they had found Simpson not guilty of murdering his late wife. That same year in April, Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb at the federal building in Oklahoma City, resulting in 168 confirmed deaths and nearly 700 injured persons. The same violent ethos that shaped these events also informs much of the behavior seen throughout “Kids” — particularly Telly’s misogyny.

8. It gave Harmony Korine a platform to launch his career.

Larry Clark was hanging out in Washington Square Park observing skateboarders when he decided to strike up a conversation with an eighteen-year-old named Harmony Korine. Impressed with Korine’s social commentary, Clark asked the teenager to write a script for him. Korine said, “I’ve been waiting to write this movie all my life,” and sure enough, he delivered “Kids” in full form three weeks later. Today, Korine is one of the preeminent voices in independent cinema; since “Kids,” his films “Gummo,” “Trash Humpers” and “Spring Breakers” have each in their own right pushed boundaries, altering the landscape of the experimental, verite and heavily stylized forms.

READ MORE: Harmony Korine Recalls Watching His First Student Film in Exclusive Excerpt From ‘Harmony Korine: Interviews’

9. It’s a definitive AIDS awareness film.

“Kids” was shot at the height and epicenter of the ’90s AIDS epidemic in New York. At the time, AIDS awareness was highly stigmatized; many refused to get tested for fear of the associated shame. When the film was released, many adults found its depiction of casual sex gratuitous and lewd, but from a modern perspective, it’s easy to see how the film’s honest approach actually served as a dire warning against unsafe sexual practices. In one scene, two young girls go to the clinic to get tested. One is very sexually active with many partners; she gets off scot-free. The other, however, has had only had one partner, but turns out to have contracted HIV from unsafe sex with him. The lesson here is grave and clear.

10. It introduced the world to Chloe Sevigny. 

In the early ’90s, Sevigny was a model and intern at girl power-fueled Sassy magazine before none other than novelist Jay McInerney declared her “the coolest girl in the world” in the pages of The New Yorker. Soon after, Larry Clark cast her in “Kids,” her feature film debut, for which she earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her role as Jennie, a street-smart girl who tests positive for HIV. Sevigny went on to be the “It Girl” of the ’90s indie film scene, lending her pixie presence to Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut “Trees Lounge,” Harmony Korine’s “Gummo” and Whit Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” before earning raves opposite Hilary Swank in the Academy Award-winning “Boys Don’t Cry.” More daring indies followed, including Korine’s “Julien Donkey Boy,” Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” and Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.” More recently, Sevigny has found strong roles on television with series such as “Big Love,” “The Mindy Project” and “American Horror Story.”

11. It served as a brutally realistic counterpoint to the other teen movie of the summer of 1995, Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless.” 

Both films were fixated on virgins. While Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is determined to sleep with as many virgin girls as possible (without telling them he’s HIV positive), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is determined to find true love before losing her virginity. Set in the gritty streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, “Kids” is the antithesis of the Beverly Hills-set “Clueless.” It’s easy to imagine Telly setting his sights on Cher. Her response, no doubt, would be her typical “As if!”

12. It pushed the MPAA ratings envelope. 

With its graphic depiction of underage sex, “Kids” was brandished with an NC-17, then a relatively new MPAA rating which was intended to distinguish art films with racy content from X-rated pornography. Given that the film’s distributor, Miramax, was owned by Walt Disney Co. at the time, there was no way they could release an NC-17 film. Miramax ended up creating a new company for the sole purposes of releasing the film. Later, it was released without a rating. Though the NC-17 rating still exists, most films which receive the rating end up editing out “objectionable” content so they can land an R.

13. It anticipated Miramax’s break from Disney. 

They were strange bedfellows to start with – the upstart arthouse company and the corporate Mouse. But “Kids” pushed their culture clash to the limits. Even after Disney purchased Miramax for $60 million in 1993, Harvey and Bob Weinstein continued to operate Miramax independently of other Disney companies with one big exception – Disney had the final say on which films Miramax could release. This proved to be an issue not only with “Kids,” but also years later with Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and Kevin Smith’s “Dogma.” But “Kids” was the first film that tested Miramax’s limits at Disney. To sidestep the conflict, Harvey and Bob set up a new company, Excalibur Films, which, because it was not a signatory of the MPAA, was free to release the film unrated. And Disney could keep its hands clean from the controversy. After the dispute over “Fahrenheit 9/11” in 2005, 10 years after the kerfuffle over “Kids,” the Weinsteins said they wouldn’t renew their contract with Disney.

14. It captured a pre-Rudy Giuliani New York.

Though the Republican mayor took office right before principal photography began on the film in 1994, the city still maintained some residual grit. It was a time before massive gentrification, before Giuliani had waged his “quality of life” campaign that would crack down on broken windows, the homeless and drug use and push “undesirables” off the streets. Smoking, talking trash and skateboarding around Astor Place, the street kids in “Kids” used the city as their playground with few repercussions.

15. It captured what it meant to be a teen in New York City before the internet. 

E-mail was around, but the internet had yet to subsume the larger culture. Smart phones, Tumblr, Twitter and texting hadn’t yet been invented so the kids had to rely on pagers or just meet up by chance. It’s easy to imagine how the film would be altered by today’s social media and cell phone culture — surely, Telly would be chronicling his virgin deflowering campaign on a Tumblr and he’d be documenting his conquests on Instagram. A scary thought, for sure.

16. It solidified Eric Alan Edwards’ reputation as a major cinematographer. 

Edwards had already established himself as a notable director of photography working on Gus Van Sant’s 1991 hit “My Own Private Idaho,” for which he won an Independent Spirit Award. But “Kids” was a unique showcase for Edwards’ skill, with the shaky camerawork bringing a degree of realism to each scene that played a large role in its fascinating and at times unsettling intimacy with the characters. Edwards’ more recent credits include studio projects like “The Change-Up” and “Knocked Up,” but he also recently shot the offbeat Kristen Wiig comedy “Welcome to Me.” 

17. It introduced the world to Rosario Dawson.

Dawson is such a major star these days that it’s easy to forget she came out of nowhere in “Kids,” for which she was cast when Clark and Korine came across her sitting outside her New York home near the “Kids” shoot. Her seamless blend of attitude and intelligence continue to define her roles in projects ranging from last year’s “Top Five” to Netflix’s “Daredevil.” But it’s all right there in her first performance ever — at the age of 15 — as the garrulous Ruby, who delivers a memorable monologue about losing her virginity at summer camp.

READ MORE: Rosario Dawson on the Importance of Slowing Down

18. There’s nothing fake about its characters. 

Korine wrote the screenplay for “Kids” in a matter of days, relying largely on tape recordings of its characters in conversation. A number of party scenes were improvised. Most of the actors were so close to the scene that they barely had to perform. The resulting naturalism is a direct result of this quasi-documentary process, wherein even the fictional characters talk like real people, and it often feels more like we’re hanging out with them rather than watching from afar. 

19. It pushed the boundaries of censorship in America. 

Denounced by Parliament and criticized as pornography, “Kids” nonetheless overcame all potential boundaries to become a modest hit and a critically acclaimed work of art. Last year’s bizarre attempt by hackers to stifle the release of “The Interview” has nothing on the climate of conservative sensibilities that “Kids” faced. But the committed distributor — and the overall commitment that Clark brought to the project every step of the way — ensured that nothing would stand in its way. 

20. New York may have changed, but “Kids” is timeless. 

Still a provocative look at risk-taking youth, filled with attitude and anxieties, “Kids” is a deeply unsettling coming-of-age story. It deals with dangerous behavior, but even its villains are essentially half-wits, its makes their demented behavior strangely tangible, and as a result that much more instructive about the darker tendencies at the root of human desire. That perceptive ingredient will never get old.

READ MORE: Watch: Secrets Are an Illusion in Exclusive Trailer for Larry Clark’s ‘Marfa Girl’

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