By Teresa Zhang
March 2, 2021
Released in 1995, Kids was polarizing from the start. Washington Post critic Rita Kempley called the film “child pornography”, while Janet Maslin, film critic for The New York Times at the time, lauded the film’s plot and performances as realistic portrayals of modern urban life.
Almost thirty years later, I find that Maslin’s observations still hold true. Kids’s central themes—the dangers of drug use and unsafe sex—still feel just as relevant today, if not more so, as it did in the 90s.
In the most basic sense, this film is a tale about the dangers of unsafe sex and drug use as it tracks a day in the life of Telly and Casper—the two main male characters in this film portrayed by Leo Fitzpatrick and Justin Pierce respectively—as they travel through New York City searching for drugs and distraction from their lives, while Jenny—the female lead played by Chloe Sevigny in her screen debut—searches for Telly to inform him that she caught HIV from him and to stop him from spreading it to another girl. However, as prurient as the plot of the film is, it’s not what held my interest during the entirety of the hour and thirty minutes the film lasted; instead, it was the dialogue, characters, and setting of the film.
Despite being crude (or perhaps because of it), the dialogue feels like an accurate depiction of how teens talk to each other: brash, blunt, and overwhelmingly disgusting. These factors don’t just plague the conversations of the boys in the film, but also the girls, as they discuss their sexual exploits and preferences with each other in vivid, graphic detail. And as much as I hate to admit, this is exactly how teens—be it in the 90s or now—approach topics: friends serve as echo chambers, and once they are reassured, continue to bluster on to the next subject.
However, the dialogue could not exist without what truly shaped the film: the characters within it. And it is here that I’d like to address the crux of the film—the characters aren’t likeable, they’re realistic portrayals of youth. They commit inexcusably heinous acts—Telly is in the midst of deflowering a 12-year old virgin at the start of the film, and Casper later instigates a fight that nearly kills the other man—but what motivates these characters, what drives their actions, are deeply and unsettlingly relatable. Telly’s predilection for young girls stems from his desire to be important and memorable. Behind Casper’s violence and anger is the deeply seated need to be acknowledged. Jenny doesn’t want her life to end before it even begins, to become another statistic.
The most horrifying part of this film is not the above mentioned events, but rather the environment in which these kids came to age. Although every generation claims that the next generation is the most immoral yet, the 90s did truly seem that. Teens who came of age in the 90s were thrown headfirst into the consequences of the previous generations’ behavior: they were witnesses to the AIDS/HIV epidemic, financially unstable in the aftermath of the early 1990s recession, and the normalization of excessive drug use. But most importantly, they were the product of a society that treated kids as if they were insignificant. The lack of parental supervision throughout the film best exemplifies the latter, the audience catching glimpse of younger kids, “true” kids observing the behavior of the older kids and later imitating it, ensuring that the destructive behavior will carry onto the twenty-first century.
While the original intention of writer Harmony Korine wasn’t to provide a warning of the consequences of modern decadence, but rather merely an observation of urban teen life, in today’s eerily similar society, it would certainly serve as an exemplary cautionary tale, serving as both a reflection for teens who may be heading in a similar path to the ones seen in the film, and a harsh exposure of reality to more sheltered teens.