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The independently produced film Kids was something of a cinematic sensation when it first came out, featuring raw scenes of New York teenagers engaging in sex, drugs, violence and more. Given that it starred mostly non-actors culled from the very streets it portrayed and the explicit nature of the material, Kids raised all sorts of ethical questions at the time about how director Larry Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine may have exploited their young cast, though it also played at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, garnering acclaim (and a fair amount of criticism) at both. Made on a budget of $1.5 million, it grossed well over 10 times that, enriching its creators, if not its cast. 

Now, in the new documentary The Kids, director Eddie Martin (Have You Seen the Listers?) looks back 26 years at how the film was made and what happened after its release. However one feels about the original work (and at the time, I certainly found it intriguing), there is no doubt that, at the very least, Clark and Korine engaged in very problematic, if not completely indefensible, practices. Perhaps The Kids will serve as a much overdue comeuppance. Even if not, it is well worth watching, for it gives a voice to those whose real-life stories were overshadowed by the scripted presentation of such. It is finally time for them to speak, unfiltered.

Missing from the equation are Clark and Korine, themselves, who, according to an ending title card, passed on the opportunity to participate. Neither Chloë Sevigny nor Rosario Dawson, for whom Kids marked their onscreen debuts, and who are the only two to forge a long-term career since, are interviewed, either (without explanation), to the film’s detriment. It is true that they did not come from the same extremely impoverished milieu as the rest (and Sevigny had done some modeling, prior), and had better social networks in place, yet given the list of accusations levied at the filmmakers, it would be nice to hear from two folks who benefitted from the experience, just for perspective. 

That said, the documentary still resonates deeply, and the subjects who are on camera articulate in moving terms what the production was like. We meet Priscilla Forsyth,  Hamilton Harris, Ryan Hickey, Highlyann Krasnow, Jamal Simmons, and others, not all of whom ended up in Kids, but all from the same group of alienated youth, many of them skateboarders, approached by Clark, a noted photographer, while hanging out in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park in the early 1990s. He was then in his late forties, yet according to our interviewees joined them not only in smoking weed but supplying it, along with alcohol. When Clark met young NYU film student Korine, who also began palling around with the park teens, he drafted him to write the screenplay for what would become the movie. After the film’s release, Clark would also sell, for high prices, the photographs he took in this pre-production period, thereby doubly profiting from the enterprise. 

All of this is laid out by the now fortysomething former cast members and friends, some with more rancor than others. Part of what disturbs is how their narratives were not only stolen, but manipulated to be something that would make for exciting drama, rather than reflect actual lives (though all writers do this, for sure). As Krasnow asks, why focus on the sex and drugs? Why not examine the genuine friendships that brought them all together as a refuge from their depressing circumstances, instead? They had become each other’s support systems, something largely absent from Kids, and it was that film that contributed to the erosion of those very systems.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the tragic arcs of Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce, both now long deceased, the one form suicide, the other from a drug overdose. They are the symbols of what can happen when people of privilege use people without it for their own betterment. And while it would be unjust to blame all that happened on Clark, Korine and their enablers (some of whom are us), it is completely valid to appraise their motives and actions once they took what they needed and left. The kids in The Kids feel used and abused. They speak here loudly, and the least we can do is finally listen.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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