Are controversial films worth it? 20 years on from Kids

[Re-uploaded from 30/07/15]

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Larry Clark’s film Kids. Filmed in a documentary-like manner, Clark’s bleak portrayal of 1990s youth follows a group of teens in New York City over a period of 24 hours as they drink, take drugs and have lots and lots of sex. Strikingly different from the 1990s New York City we saw in other media, such as Sex and the City, the screenplay is written by a 19 year old, and almost all cast members were either friends of his or picked up from local skate parks, supposedly to reveal what teens in 90s NYC were really up to.

The vague plot running throughout this film mainly revolves around the character Telly, a sixteen year old boy who spends his days finding young virgins to ‘deflower’, or as he puts it himself, he is ‘the virgin surgeon’. The film begins with an uncomfortably long make-out session between Telly and a 12 year old girl. He then persuades her to have sex with him. If you can make it through the first four minutes of this film, you can make it through anything.

 It isn’t entirely clear how he manages to coerce these poor young girls into bed with him, as his striking resemblance to McLovin from Superbad and his apparent inability to string a coherent sentence together does not an attractive partner make. But somehow he’s managed it and this is where the problems begin: Telly’s chosen method of contraception is sleeping with young, virgin girls; a trick that hasn’t quite worked in his favour as he unknowingly has HIV, a fact the viewer is aware of due to the diagnosis being given to one of his former virgin conquests, Jennie.
While Telly goes about his typical day, sleeping with a few virgins, smoking some weed, beating a man possibly to death at a skate park (you know, all those things you did all the time in your teenage years!), Jennie goes running around the city looking for him to deliver the life changing news.
The film is littered with the characters’ frank and open discussions of their sexual experiences and preferences, an aspect of teen life perhaps not so common in the more conserved British life, unless completely drunk that is. For teen sexuality to be discussed, and acknowledged in the film is great. In addition the entire cast is made up of real, greasy-haired, acne riddled teens, rather than the more commonly seen 25 year old model-esque actors and actresses who portray teens in more mainstream films. These are perhaps the only redeeming parts of the film.
Kids is, as a whole, an all around disturbing and uncomfortable film to watch, but it can be argued that this is the point. The release of this film was so controversial that in many countries it had to be released without a rating due to the backlash and public debate. The film very directly deals with HIV, a topic the young people in the film, and presumably in reality as well, were ignorant of. It is understandable what Clark was attempting to achieve with this film, but all it did was shock rather than inform. There is no conclusion to the story, as Jennie reaches Telly too late as he has already taken the virginity of another young girl, and instead gets raped by one of Telly’s friends. The film does not explore what happens to them afterwards, about the devastating effect of HIV, nor does it show the characters to have anything less than a carefree attitude about the situation. Perhaps if Clark wanted to actually make a statement and instigate change he would have made a real documentary about the lives of Kids doing drugs, having sex and having to live with the terrible consequences, rather than the scripted plot we see. Instead we get this disturbing view of teen life in which young female bodies are objectified in a child pornographic way. Maybe this level of controversy is the point, in order to get people talking, but is it worth it for the upsetting imagery shown and the lack of lesson learned?
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