In a 1995 article for Filmmaker, photographer-turned-director Larry Clark complained to writer Peter Bowen that most films about teens “never used kids the right age, always actors playing younger. They always make it a happy ending. There’s always something that doesn’t ring true.”
At the time, Clark was making his point as promotion for Kids, his directorial debut that took an unblinking look at the day-to-day life of adolescents in New York City. The merciless indie film caused all manner of controversy upon its release, due to its depiction of real-life teens partying, exploding into acts of violence, and having casual sex. It also made a lot of money, raking in over $20 million at the box office, and launched the careers of Chloe Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, and its screenwriter, Harmony Korine.
In the 26 years since Kids was released, its cultural impact has dulled considerably. But the lingering effects it has had on the young people who starred in the film are still felt. Those aftershocks form the core of Australian filmmaker Eddie Martin’s latest work The Kids. Through present-day interviews with a handful of the actors from Kids and ample home video footage, the documentary paints a damning portrait of exploitation on the part of Clark, Korine, and the Hollywood machine that turned the film into a hit—and collective indifference toward the plight of the teens in it. And it puts the above quote from Clark in a much bleaker context.
There’s a good deal of truth in what Kids portrayed. Many of the teenagers in the film were non-actors living in New York who spent their days seeking escape from their desolate home lives through the outlets of skateboarding, drinking, and drugs. In the process, they formed a makeshift family that truly looked out for one another. In a telling anecdote, actor Hamilton Harris remembers getting a “tough love” call out about his drug use from Harold Hunter, his friend and future Kids star. Both young men had watched as their family members succumbed to crack and heroin addictions and Hunter was worried that Harris’ weed use would send his friend down a similar path.
Into this crew’s lives wandered a 50-something photographer and NYU film student. Asymbiotic relationship began. The teens got free beer and weed, and Clark and Korine got fodder for their collaborative project: a no-holds-barred film about the lives of American youths starring these same young people they had befriended.
A tornado of activity followed. Harris and co-star Jon Abrahams both describe how Clark used his influence to blur lines of consent and urge them to cross some dangerous boundaries like getting Hunter to expose himself within the film and yelling at Abrahams to rub a young woman’s crotch. Worse is Javier Nunez, then in his pre-teens, filming a party scene that required him to smoke at least ten blunts with some of his equally young pals. He wound up passed out on the same bed where a sex scene was being filmed.
As these young men explain to Martin’s cameras, it all seemed exciting at the time. They basked in the glow of Kids’ success, even if they never reaped any financial rewards from it. They were excited to watch Hunter and Justin Pierce, who played Casper in the film, leave to seek out more acting work in L.A. But the reality of the experience soon sunk in. For Harris, it was watching the scene where he spells out how to turn a cigar into a blunt. As he told Variety recently, “It was extremely overwhelming and it brought the realization that I needed to do some work on myself.”
Some of his friends and co-stars were not so lucky. Both Hunter and Pierce died young, from an accidental overdose and by suicide, respectively. These outcomes, Martin suggests, might have been avoided had the experience of Kids not pulled them away from their support systems in New York nor dangled the allure of celebrity in front of their eyes.
It’s the people involved in Kids who did parlay their work on the film into long careers in show business who are conspicuously absent from The Kids. Sevigny, Dawson, and actor Leo Fitzpatrick either weren’t interviewed for the film or didn’t want to take part. We only know for sure that Clark and Korine refused to participate thanks to a title card that appears at the end of the documentary.
Not that we needed a talking head interview to suss out the feelings of the director and screenwriter of Kids about the young actors in their film. Korine apparently shied away from spending any more time with them after Kids was in theaters.
Clark’s feelings are far more unequivocal. In a small moment at the end of The Kids, Harris attempts to get the director on the phone, and he can be heard quickly begging off the call. It’s a mirror of the press conference held at the Cannes Film Festival after Kids was screened for critics. Clark dodges every question about the age of the actors, the use of drugs on set, and his motivation for making the film.
At the time it seemed odd, but any further discussion was glossed over when Kids was snapped up by Miramax and became a hit. As seen today, it looks like gaslighting.