Today’s the 20th anniversary of Kids, the indie film that captured a generation’s ennui and launched the careers of Harmony Korine, Chloe Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, Leo Fitzpatrick. Even two decades on, it remains a powerful and astonishing document of life for mutable ‘90s youth.
My story about Kids is, I think, fairly typical for anyone who was a teenager when it came out: it shook me to my core, but also tantalized me with its freedom, the idea of being 17 in the city and blessedly unmoored, drifting from street to street, the only guiding force the promise of weed and sex and how much trouble could be found. This was probably not director Larry Clark’s intent, of course—in 1995, as I recall, the going narrative was around its moralizing, that the latchkey kids of the ‘90s were all going to contract and die from AIDS because of our lack of supervision and dogged quest for a good time—but it was, for me, the film’s result. I was in Wyoming: all I ever wanted to do was grow up and move to New York, and Kids read like cool freedom. Including or maybe especially in the scene where Chloe Sevigny and her girlfriends are having a koffeeklatch about losing their virginities and how much they loved sex, I thought of these characters as liberated and fierce. They lived in apartments, they went to clubs and rode in taxi cabs. The city, and the world, was theirs.
I got tested for HIV the first time because of Kids, a fact I’ve heard from a lot of my friends the same age. The rawness of the film’s opening scene—Leo Fitzpatrick’s Telly, gangly and pale, awkwardly tonguing an impossibly young girl before he sweet-talks her into losing her virginity—juxtaposed with its end, after we know he’s HIV-positive and after which he’s used his same seduction skills on Yakira Peguero’s Darcy, as Casper (Justin Pierce) rapes an unconscious Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) before she can give Telly the news. It ends like that, with no sense of the aftermath. It infused a sense of fear in the viewer concurrent with the tenor of the era, particularly in a time after so many people died and were dying from AIDS—mainly gay men, who are consistently slandered in the film, which as a whole is aggressively heteronormative and masculinist. Harmony Korine said he wrote from a real perspective about his real-life friends, and of that I have no doubt; I remember the skateboard boys of the time because I coveted them, tried to be cooler around them than I ever was. They were rough, dickish, entitled. Thrasher magazine ads were basically nudies for skate boys with burgeoning libidos. Every boy I knew wanted to fuck Rosa. My girlfriends and I could never be what they wanted, because we were smart and too newly feminist to try, but the longing was still there.
I remember the coldness of that doctor’s room, the prick of the needle as she drew blood, the humiliation of her asking me if I’d ever done things sexually that I’d never even heard about. I imagined Jennie in that room, going along with her friend on a lark and being slapped in the face with her status—“But I’ve only had sex with Telly”—and being terrified because the boy I lost my own virginity to was in two high-risk groups, and though we’d used a condom, a mutual friend with high spiked hair had told me in a depressing Fort Collins techno club that the boy had moved to the Bay and tested positive. I lived with that for years, I still don’t know totally if it’s true, but I believe it. I was lucky enough to have missed that bullet, was always diligent about condoms to the point of giving lectures; my friends called me “Grandma Julianne” because of my stoic insistence that they be as safe as I was trying to be.
That was all Kids, the first time it really resonated with me that young, straight, sexually prudent teenagers could contract HIV too. (It’s sad to say, given all the education I’d had—they still taught sex ed in public schools back then, and barely any of it preached abstinence—but in Wyoming, I’d been fortunate enough to be personally unscathed by the epidemic, too young and remote to have known any of the scores of lives lost from it.) If just for that, Kids was an important movie, dramatic and overdone and not very well acted, but also a document of the tension in that time and place that both recognized our nihilism and mitigated it.
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