Soleil Moon Frye directs this bittersweet albeit breezy look back at the Hollywood teen stars of the ’90s, and their difficult road to now.
Content warning: this documentary contains drug use, mentions of suicide, and a description of a sexual assault.
A bittersweet paean to youth, Kid 90 (directed by Soleil Moon Frye) is like opening the cool kid’s journal, and that’s exactly what it is. Created using the literal years of home video footage that Frye created as a teenager and young woman, along with supplementary material from her journals and contemporary interviews with friends like Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Heather McComb, and David Arquette, Kid 90 is an almost painfully earnest capsule of Generation X shenanigans. Sex? Drugs? Rock n roll? It’s all here, and it’s all in flannel.
As someone just a few years younger than Frye and the majority of her friends, it’s easy to be swept up in the nostalgia of it all; these were the kids that we all wanted to be. A baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio (who also produced Kid 90) brags about how much he’s grown since the last time they hung out; Frye plays a recording of an answering machine message from Mark Wahlberg and her own voice nervously debating calling him back; Jenny Lewis smirks in the backseat of a car as a group of the friends are pulled over. “I hope they don’t find my gun,” she deadpans.
Despite how it might seem at first glance, Kid 90 rises above becoming a collection of namedrops. While the clips are a veritable Who’s Who of Tiger Beat magazine, very few of the interactions come across as disingenuous. As Frye notes, this was before the internet and social media; they were just kids being themselves.
Catapulted into stardom as a child on the sitcom Punky Brewster, Frye’s profile began to dwindle after the show ended and she, America’s kid sweetheart, began to grow up. Diagnosed with gigantomastia in her teens, Frye describes (with appalling video evidence) how repeated jokes and sexual harassment plagued her daily life until she had breast reduction surgery just before her 16th birthday.
Footage from her hospital sojourn (she’s asked for an autograph before going into surgery) begins what will be a recurrent thread in the documentary as Jonathan Brandis, a lifelong friend, and fellow actor visits Frye. Brandis would commit suicide in 2003. More of the faces from Frye’s videos start to follow similar paths: Justin Pierce, skateboarder, and star of Kids, who committed suicide in 2000; singer/songwriter Andrew Dorff (brother of actor Stephen, who appears in the doc) who died of an alcohol-related accident in 2016.
Frye emphasizes the importance of listening to the people in our lives, noting the aforementioned friends and loved ones and wondering aloud if there could have been more she could have done. It’s within these conversations that the primary thread of the documentary begins to emerge. This isn’t so much Frye wanting to share a fun look back at the normal aspects of a Hollywood childhood as it is looking at her relationships with adult eyes and the painful clarity of hindsight.
It’s a brief slice of nostalgia and coming-of-age, but maybe with a little more time to breathe, it could have been more.
One such painful interlude comes when Frye reads an excerpt from her journals, describing her experience of being raped as a teenager. It’s clear that she’s carried a significant amount of self-recrimination and guilt for what happened to her. While she’s not obligated to dwell on this event, the narrative moves on just a twinge quickly for such a serious topic.
That’s the largest flaw of Kid 90 – the fact that it goes by so fast. The majority focuses on Frye’s teen years in Hollywood and her college life in New York City, there’s a quick rundown of her marriage and children, and then back to the memories again. A reunion visit to friend Danny Boy O’Connor is sweet but lacks the import that it could have had; moments with Dorff and Gosselaar hold more weight in their brief interviews.
It’s a brief slice of nostalgia and coming-of-age, but maybe with a little more time to breathe, it could have been more. That said, it has moments of joy and good old-fashioned teenage philosophy that make it a sweet and entertaining watch.
Kid 90 premieres March 12th on Hulu.