Larry Clark, hunched over and leaning on a cane, moseys toward the rear exit of the caliginous theater, silhouetted by his film Kids.
The movie has barely started, and the director doesn’t return until it’s almost over.
When Clark reenters the theater, Leo Fitzpatrick follows close behind. The actor, whose career started with the film that is now drawing to a close on screen, audibly swallows. In the film’s glow, his hair is dusted with gray, and there are lines around his eyes that were invisible 20 years ago, but he’s still Telly.
The 2015 edition of BAMcinemaFest, a mini-festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is fêting the 20th anniversary of the movie Kids with a screening followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers and cast. Shot on a budget of $1.5 million, the film was a phenomenon, eventually grossed $7.4 million in the U.S. and $20 million worldwide. It premiered at Cannes, taking home four Independent Spirit Awards, including Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay.
It’s the last days of summer 1994, and the adolescents on screen are killing time, blissfully unaware that they will be the first Americans in a generation to graduate from childhood into a country at war.
Director Larry Clark’s Kids caused a moral panic among parents and censors when it hit theaters. Being slapped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA meant that most of the actors in the movie were technically barred from seeing the film in which they starred.
There was the sex, of course, as the film opens with 17-year-old Telly (Fitzpatrick) convincing a 12-year-old girl—who is a virgin—to have sex with him. She submits to his rakish charms, and he tells his buddy Casper (Justin Pierce) about the encounter in great detail. We soon learn that Telly is only interested in deflowering girls. We also learn that he is HIV positive—thanks to Jennie (Chloë Sevigny), who tests positive and has had sex only with Telly. She spends the rest of the film trying to find him—this is, of course, the pre-cellphone era—before he has unprotected sex with a 13-year-old he’s set his sights on.Along the way, audiences were treated to an uncompromising look at teenage life in New York City, from frank discussions about oral sex (courtesy of Ruby, played by Rosario Dawson), to persistent drug use, to scenes of shocking violence—most notably a sequence in which a group of skaters beat and stomp an older man in Washington Square Park, probably killing him.
Contrary to the advice of nervous parents everywhere, writer Harmony Korine told the BAM audience, “It’s kind of a well-known story that I met Larry in a park.”
(So for any children reading this, don’t listen to your Mom and Dad. If you want to be famous and have a career in show business, chat up older men in public places, especially the ones who offer to photograph you.)
When the movie first hit theaters, Roger Ebert called the children in it “a failure of home, school, church and society” and Janet Maslin called their lives “wretched” in The New York Times, because a person, once removed from the reality of childhood, can barely contemplate its myriad horrors. But these kids are the products of those homes, schools, churches, and societies. If the idea of the teenager was born in America, Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s Kids is its apotheosis.
Teenagers on film are rarely actual teens. James Dean was 24 when he played a teenager in Rebel Without a Cause. It’s no wonder Alan Ruck’s Cameron was depressed in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he was probably the only 30-year-old in his high school graduating class. And lest you think this was some movie-making malarkey confined to the distant past, Andrew Garfield was 28 when he played high schooler Peter Parker in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man.
The kids in Kids are actual kids. During the panel that followed the screening, cast member Rosario Dawson, who played Ruby, talked about being 15 and playing a 17-year-old. “I can remember us sitting when we’re waiting to get our [HIV] test results and I’m telling [Chloë] I just had my first kiss playing Spin the Bottle in Tompkins Square Park… and she’s like ‘Rosario!’”
For Dawson, like so many of the cast, Kids was her first acting role. Also appearing are Chloë Sevigny, who would be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Boys Don’t Cry five years later, Leo Fitzpatrick, who went on to join the cast of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire, as well as Gina Diaz and Jon Abrahams, who played Robert De Niro’s troublemaking son in Meet the Parents.
“I met Leo when he was 14,” Clark said. “And I loved his voice. No one could understand him.”
Many of the actors were cast right off the streets of New York.
“They found me on a stoop,” Dawson told the audience.
The characters, too, were based on people Clark and Korine knew from around the city. Including the late Harold Hunter.
In many ways, Kids was well ahead of its time in depicting an urban landscape overrun with mostly white youths appropriating black culture. Several members of the audience and panel were quick to point out the drastically different experience mobile communications and social networking has given children today. Without Facebook or Snapchat, their platforms are smaller, but the same urge to announce themselves to their peers, and thereby construct their desired personas, is very much on display.
Tiya Gordon was a teenager hanging out in New York City in the summer of 1994. Her girlfriends would go to Washington Square Park and watch boys skateboard in the summer heat. One day, she saw a flyer advertising an open casting call for the movie that would become Kids. She and a friend auditioned together.
“I had no idea who Larry Clark was.” Gordon told The Daily Beast. “But later I looked him up in an art bookstore.”
When she heard about the anniversary screening, Gordon searched for a clip of her brief appearance online.
“I was in the bathroom orgy scene,” Gordon said, referring to the infamous nightclub, Tunnel. The scene, which included a cameo from the film’s writer, Harmony Korine, was filmed at the now defunct discotheque. Gordon is one of the teens lining the wall while a group of kids from Jersey roll their faces off on ecstasy and make out like a pair of awkward, horny… kids. The club was shut down in 2000 after a protracted legal battle in which the federal government tried to pin a drug charge on its eye-patched owner, Peter Gatien.
“I hadn’t watched the clip in 10 years. It totally brought me back to all the clothing,” said Gordon. “Baggy skater pants. The girls all had pixie cuts. Dog collars. Tight sport shirts. Skin-tight tops with ridiculously baggy bottoms. Ring Pops. All the weird things we did to our bodies and hair. It was right around when piercing started being adopted en masse and we would go to 9th Street to do it. It was the only place that offered it. Cassiopeia.”
Gordon’s friend had a longer scene, and some lines in the film. When Chloe Sevigny’s Jennie is starting to feel the effects of the downer pill she’s popped, it is Gordon’s friend who comes up and asks her to dance.
“When Kids came out everyone was completely shocked at how it portrayed kids,” Gordon said. “When I was re-watching it, I really feel like the acting in the rest of the film is a 5-10 percent exaggeration of how the crews I ran into behaved. There was a lot of experimentation with drugs. Lots of experimentation with sex. My infant daughter is closer to that age than I am and she’s going to age pretty quickly. She’ll be equivalent to that age in the year 2030.”
Gordon’s own parents had no idea their daughter was sneaking out to New York City from their home in Long Island. They were teenagers in the ’50s, the first generation of “teenagers” in the U.S. “It’s scary,” she said. “Maybe the ’90s were the worst of it. The height of the worst behavior ever. Designer drugs, both parents working. That’s how it all came out.”
Gordon went to see the film during its initial run in Lincoln Center. To this day, she has never told her parents about her role in the film.
“It started out having a lot of documentary factors in it. Everything in the film had happened—except for Jennie,” Clark said during the panel. “But we had to have a hook. We had to have the maiden tied to the railroad tracks.’”
The director’s comments highlight that this was not only the first generation to become sexually active in the middle of a global AIDS pandemic, but also the first to grow up in a time of politically ascendant right-wing Christian hate-mongering.
The only openly gay characters appear halfway through the film. When the teens see two men holding hands, they are quick to assert their revulsion and shout obscenities. Later, when the same group of boys sees two girls kissing, they respond with delight, while any pleasure the women may have experienced is downplayed.
“What was happening that summer was that they were going to start giving condoms out at school that school year, of ’94, and the Catholic Church was up in arms about it,” Clark said. “And so Planned Parenthood was giving condoms away to everybody. And in the park, all the kids had strings of condoms around their neck.”
The same year that Kids was released, the FDA approved the use of protease inhibitors, an antiviral medication that vastly reduced the amount of HIV carriers who would die from AIDS-related infections. Each year since has seen a steady increase in the number of people living with HIV.
Speaking about the role of HIV in telling the story, writer Harmony Korine compared the human immunodeficiency virus to the shark in Jaws. “We didn’t know anything about the disease except we didn’t want to get it.”
The metaphor of a deadly shark is apt, but more fitting when applied to Leo Fitzpatrick’s character Telly. The film opens with his statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl, and closes with Casper raping a passed out Jennie, thus contracting HIV.
During the panel, Sevigny said she’s disturbed by fans that still approach her and repeat lines that Pierce delivers to her character during the sexual assault. Pierce, sadly, took his own life in 2000.
After the screening, the cast gathers on the red carpet for group photos. As the crowd parts, suddenly appears the magnificent Isabel Celeste, writer, singer, and mother to Rosario Dawson. She stands with Rosario’s father, and it’s like watching someone else’s high school reunion.
Outside Brooklyn's Jay Rose Theater, it’s June in New York City. The first week of summer. On the subway platform, a boy in a Converse T-shirt crawls underneath the turnstile with his skateboard tucked beneath one arm.
Just kids being kids.