If there’s any a movie that manages to at once make you feel the confusing combination of voyeuristic, scared, perverted and horrified it’s Kids (1995, dir. Larry Clark). Written by Harmonie Korine, the film truly excels at not only shoving you out of your comfort zone, but also at forcing the viewer to face unavoidable, unpleasant truths and questions regarding youth. By showing graphic, uncomfortable scenes that contain elements of innocence and goodness, Kids forces viewers to question not only the health and future of younger generations, but also question to what degree are these members of the younger generations are a product of their environments.
As soon as Kids starts we are assaulted by the opening scene; our vision, hearing and comfort levels are all at once brutally assaulted. The first thing we are shown is a close up makeout session with a boy and a girl. This image in itself is plenty to cause a great deal of discomfort to the viewer, specifically feelings of voyeurism for intruding on such a private moment. Not only do we intrude on this moment by simply watching, but we watch in a very invasive way since the shot is an extreme close up. On top of this, the loud, overpowering sounds of a sloppy adolescent makeout session only add to our sensory assault since there the scene is totally quiet other than these unpleasant and uncomfortable sounds. This initial scene is the beginning of a continuous assault on our senses and comfort levels.
As the shot changes from an extreme close up to reveal main man Telly and his female conquest of the moment sitting on a bed in only undergarments, we can guess that Telly is a teenager and that the girl he is making out with is much younger than he, she looks like she is barely a teenager. The two have a very brief discussion about how Telly wants to have sex with her and that even though she is a virgin nothing will change between the two of them. This dialogue catches us off guard with its explicit, candid nature (i.e. Telly asks the girl “Do you know what I want to do?” She responds “You want to fuck me,”) and the age of the characters saying it. That the characters are young and are likely going to have sex has now been confirmed outright- there is no more guessing, estimating ages or quite honestly, dancing around the subject, we are flat out told something we are not comfortable knowing.
Armed with this new information, the two return to their makeout session, which is again an extreme close up shot. What was already an uncomfortable shot is now at least ten times more uncomfortable since we are now aware of both the ages and intentions of the characters in the scene. Add to this that the girl’s bedroom is filled with stuffed animals on a shelf that we can see behind the pair. We have gone from feeling uncomfortable for being extreme voyeurs, to being extremely uncomfortable for being extreme voyeurs of (essentially) children—it is almost like we have almost become a kind of extra perverted voyeur. While grappling with this discomfort we have absolutely nowhere else to look given the extreme close up of the shot—it is really the only thing we can look at onscreen, truly making it an assault on our senses and our comfort levels.
The scene ends with Telly finally winning over the young girl, convincing her to have sex with him. We are assaulted with the image of Telly on top of the girl, as he penetrates her we can see her face very clearly adding yet another level of discomfort—not only are we watching a young girl lose her virginity, but the focus of the scene is her face which is truly exhibiting physical pain. During this moment, there is nothing else to look at in the shot, so again we cannot look at anything else onscreen to try and avoid this uncomfortable situation. The camera moves up to Telly’s face, he is thrusting hard and clearly enjoying the sex and paying no mind to the girl’s comfort, at this point loud, harsh rock music begins to play—another assault to the senses. Underneath this music we can just barely hear the girl saying “Telly it hurts! Telly please…,” while we can see Telly’s face in ecstasy as he continues to thrust away carefree. This opening scene is immediately an assault to our senses and comfort levels due to the extreme close up of a soppy makeout session, as the scene continues we are introduced to elements of innocence (the girl’s young age, her stuffed animals on a shelf in her bedroom) and elements of sex—the intermixing of these elements results in us seeing an extremely uncomfortable, assaulting scene of a young girl having sex.
The number of highly uncomfortable scenes that seem to assault us with their extreme and explicit dialogue and visuals are quite frequent at many points in the film. Another scene that achieves a similar twisted web of discomfort is a scene early in the film where we are introduced to two of the leading females in the film, Jennie (Chloe Sevigney) and Ruby (Rosario Dawson). We are with Jennie, Ruby and a few of their female friends, the discussion starts out with Ruby hanging up the phone and relaying to Jennie that Telly says hi. We then learn that Jennie lost her virginity to Telly a year ago and that he hasn’t spoken to her since, this leads to an excited and casual discussion about their sexual experiences. The girls share stories that run the gamut of sex related topics-everything from how much they bled when they lost their virginity or how they really enjoy “fucking” (as opposed to what it seems to be regular, gentler sex); with each story the girls get more enthusiastic, laughing with excitement and exclaiming declarations of agreement for each shared experience and sentiment. The excitement and enthusiasm that comes from not just sharing their own experiences but also from learning that some of the girls have experienced similar things almost immediately conjures images of a youthful sleepover with a group of best friends staying up all night and talking about celebrities, crushes and gossip. We are imagining an innocent sleepover, but we are hearing something totally different—an explicit, casual discussion about sex between teenage girls; this contrast is totally unexpected catching us off guard and filling us with extreme discomfort.
Moments like the sleepover-esque round table discussion of sex between the female characters use the innocence from images to drive home just how horrifying things could end up being for these young characters. With the reminder of the characters’ young ages also comes a reminder that despite their highly active sex lives they are still innocent, vulnerable and highly ill-equipped to deal with the potential consequences that their actions could have, and for Jennie actually do have when she discovers she is HIV positive despite only ever sleeping with Telly. When we are reminded of this it forces us to keep in mind that deep down these characters are still somewhat innocent, and ignorant children which actually forces us to question how exactly they ended up in such adult sexual situations.
In addition to reminding us of the characters’ innocence and youthfulness, there are also scenes that simply show us moments of goodness in the characters, which works to humanize even the most seemingly amoral characters in the film. Telly and Casper sit on the subways Telly tells Casper that he wants to deflower a friend’s thirteen year old sister; suddenly a homeless, legless man on a skateboard enters the Subway car singing “I have no legs/I have no legs/I have no legs,” while holding up a cup for money from the passengers. What we expect to see from these morally flexible teenage boys who enjoy deflowering virgins, drinking, doing drugs and beating up people in Central Park is something along the lines of a hurtful string of insults or physical violence towards the legless man. As soon as the man enters the Subway car, Telly and Casper’s conversation begins to quiet and their faces both start to tense up, we are not sure yet if it is discomfort, awkwardness or the preface to physical and/or emotional abuse; as the legless man begins to get closer and closer the expressions and body language of the two boys gets more and more tense and closed off making it clear that they are very uncomfortable about the situation. The legless man finally makes his way down the aisle and passes by Telly and Casper, rather than do something mean spirited or harmful, Casper reaches into his pocket, pulls out some money and places it into the legless man’s cup. The legless man shows his appreciation to Casper, with a “Thank you. God bless,” and Casper returns the good wish with a “Bless you back”. This small moment of goodness, charity and compassion catches us completely off guard, showing a positive and genuine side to Casper–it works to humanize him. This innocent moment shows us that beneath the tough, disobedient, law breaking, fist fighting youth exterior there is actually a young man who is good at heart—this again makes us ask how he ended up doing whippits, stealing and drinking 40s, beating up other males in Central Park and sleeping with girls.
At a party scene at the end of the film we are faced with another scene that combines an adult, graphic situation with elements of innocence, in this case the presence of the host’s younger brother and friends who look to be around eleven or twelve years old. Rather than being nosy pests who simply observe the pot smoking, making out and overhear the graphic sex talk, the young boys are actually participating heavily and excitedly. The three young boys sit together on a couch passing a blunt and talking about how good the weed is, and how they would like to have it every day; this is the ultimate assault to our comfort zones—rather than seeing teenagers doing adult things and being reminded of childhood by subtle hints of youth like sleepover-esque excitement or a line of dialogue that shows there is some goodness in a seemingly delinquent character, we are faced with young children (the youngest characters in the film) in an adult setting doing adult things. Given the fact that these are children (not even teenagers) who should not have any interest in partaking in activities that stray from playing with action figures and other children, that we see smoking pot at a teenage party, we question how different these children and their futures could be if they were not just removed from this party but removed from an environment (home, or even larger scale, society) that not only makes these activities accessible but also does not actively present alternatives or work to prevent youths from engaging in behavior like smoking pot.
In one of the final shots of the film, the significance of the surrounding environment of these characters is directly addressed in Telly’s brief voice over monologue. As we see Telly and Darcy asleep in bed together after he has deflowered and unknowingly shared HIV with her, we hear Telly’s voice explaining that not a lot matters when you’re young and that sex is frequently all you have and goes on to say that “…when you sleep at night, you dream of pussy. When you wake up, it’s the same thing. It’s in your face, in your dreams, you can’t escape it.” When Telly says that sex is inescapable we can’t help but think that what he describes goes beyond simply being constantly in the dreams and thoughts of teenagers, that it goes far beyond the teenage consciousness and into the surrounding environment that these characters inhabit, making it part of their experience in day to day life.
Kids is a haunting, shudder-inducing, thought-provoking, significant film. Despite being about nineteen years old, it manages to stay relevant in its concerns for and questions about the future generations. The film forces us to see the concerns for and questions about the future of younger generations by assaulting us with scenes that brilliantly mix graphic visuals, dialogue and subject matter with elements and indicators of innocence and goodness in a way that greatly raises our levels of discomfort and makes it impossible to ignore the questions and concerns for youth of today and the future. By placing these highly uncomfortable scenes in settings that are also a mixture of graphic and innocent elements, the film makes us ask the very important question of how much does the surrounding environment have to do with the choices and future of and problems concerning the youth. We watch the characters of the film partake in an ongoing pursuit of instant gratification that seems to lead into a downward spiral of nothingness and harm, and we are forced to acknowledge the reality of this pursuit and subsequent downward spiral not just onscreen but in today’s and tomorrow’s youth.
Kids. 1995. Larry Clark.