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MOVIE REVIEWS : ‘Kids’: Grossing Out the Old Squares

TIMES FILM CRITIC

It may be too late to save you from “Kids.”

Not save in the moral sense, because, as New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker famously commented, “No one was ever ruined by a book.” Or a movie. But bored, bored is a different matter.

A fictionalized look at a day in the life of streetwise, sexually active teen-agers in New York, “Kids” does know how to get talked about. Though it fizzled at Cannes after a ballyhooed Sundance debut, its NC-17 status caused the Weinsteins of Disney-owned Miramax to form an independent company called Excalibur just to distribute it without a rating.

But despite considerable publicity from media outlets fearful that the hipness bandwagon will pass them by, “Kids” is more tedious than titillating, one of those cinematic irritations more interesting to read about than to see.

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Directed in neo-documentary style by photographer Larry Clark in his feature debut, “Kids” follows the exploits, such as they are, of teen-age Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), known to intimates as “the virgin surgeon.” The film opens with him operating on his next victim, and then, in the most explicit language screenwriter Harmony Korine could dream up, sharing all the details with his drooling pal Caspar (Justin Pierce).

Most of the rest of “Kids” is a cinema-verite- influenced look at how these benighted young people and their friends pass the time. Those who have the stamina will be treated to weed smoking, gay bashing, throwing up, thieving and brawling, food fights and a general weakness for getting stoned and creating a mess. As to sex, it occurs sporadically but--happily, given the age of those involved--it is much more talked about than visible.

Perhaps sensing that the film needed one, Korine and Clark do throw in a single strand of plot, so antiquated it would have looked familiar to D. W. Griffith. Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), one of the surgeon’s victims, finds out she is HIV-positive and, with time out for getting stoned and being sick, desperately tries to contact Telly before he can deflower another innocent. If Telly were old enough to have a mustache to twirl, the scene would be complete.

When it comes to the film’s authenticity, nominally a selling point given that Korine was but 19 when he wrote the script, that is also dicey. The filmmakers take great public pleasure in proclaiming “Kids’ ” fidelity to current teen reality, but when challenged on particulars tend to insist with equal intensity that it’s all just a script.

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But even if “Kids” were a paragon of documentary verisimilitude, it wouldn’t matter much. Because once the initial jolt of seeing case-hardened babies who look barely out of diapers having sex and talking dirty wears off, “Kids” is incapable of doing anything to transform these layabouts into people worth caring about. Few adults would want to spend time with such obnoxious truants in real life, and “Kids” does not make them compelling or involving on film.

One adult, however, cares a great deal. Director Larry Clark has been interested in young people and sex since his celebrated photography collections, “Tulsa” in 1971 and “Teenage Lust” in 1983. Clark is apparently one of those individuals (protege and executive producer Gus Van Sant is another) who are intoxicated by teens, who considers the years between 12 and 20 as the apogee of human existence, with only a long slide into senility left after they’re gone.

Given that a familiarity with Clark’s work makes it clear that “Kids” owes its existence to the working out of his lifelong personal obsessions, certainly a legitimate source, it is disingenuous at best to blandly insist that the project is some kind of public spirited anti-AIDS manifesto, as one of its executive producers did when claiming “we did the film because we felt America is asleep. We hope to wake everyone up.” Truly, what people have said about this film is more disturbing than anything put on the screen.

For, so like the teen-agers it portrays, what “Kids” wants to do more than anything is not alert society but rather gross out the grown-ups. Its spirit is nakedly visible in a few loving close-ups of a legless beggar on a city subway car. The man has no purpose in the film except to further the filmmaker’s dreary hopes of getting a rise out of the squares. The fast talk and sexual abandon of the underage kids is presented in exactly the same spirit, as a kind of compassionless carnival sideshow aimed at the bad traffic accident segment of the audience, viewers determined to believe that the worst things put on screen are by definition the most true to life.

That reference to carnival sideshows is especially apt, for the films “Kids” most resembles are the traveling exploitation films with titles like “Mom and Dad” and “The Story of Bob and Sally” that were toured around America in earlier decades by mobile entrepreneurs who referred to themselves as “the forty thieves.”

The main lure of these films, hard as it is to believe today, was documentary footage of a baby being born, considered racy material at the time. But they were sold as, yes, wake-up calls to America. Here’s how the advertising material for “Bob and Sally” reads: “It’s boldly frank! It’s humanly true! It’s more than just a story . . . it’s life itself! The passionate problems of today’s youth who forget about consequences and defy convention.”

It would all fit quite nicely on a poster for “Kids.”

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* Unrated. Times guidelines: continual profanity, drug use, violence and sexual situations, all involving young teen-agers.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘Kids’ Leo Fitzpatrick: Telly Justin Pierce: Caspar Chloe Sevigny: Jennie Yakira Peguero: Darcy Released by Excalibur Films. Director Larry Clark. Producer Cary Woods. Executive producers Gus Van Sant, Patrick Panzarella, Michael Chambers. Screenplay Harmony Korine. Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards. Editor Chris Tellefson. Music Louis Barlow. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

* In limited release, at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.


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