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Tribeca 2021: “The Kids” of Larry Clark’s classic are not, in fact, all right

The Kids (Tribeca Film Festival)

Eddie Martin’s documentary gives voice to the cast of young actors in Larry Clark’s seminal Kids — and the traumas that came from the experience.

This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.

“You couldn’t possibly make that film today” is a phrase that often turns up these days when the conversation turns to older movies that have even a whiff of controversial content about them. In some cases, that’s little more than hyperbole. But in the case of Kids, it somehow comes across as an understatement. 

When it debuted in the summer of 1995, the sordid misadventures of a group of disaffected New York teenagers over the course of a long day sharply polarized audiences and critics. Some felt that controversial photographer-turned-director Larry Clark and teenaged screenwriter Harmony Korine were presenting a raw and eye-opening look at today’s youth. Others think it was little more than a contemporary version of old juvenile delinquent exploitation movies like Untamed Youth (1957) and High School Confidential(1958), notable only for the explicit nature of the material and the apparent youth of the performers involved.

The Kids is a documentary looking back on that film, but this is not a straightforward chronicle of its making, participants sitting around and cheerfully rehashing old war stories. In fact, the stuff covering its making and box-office success is pretty much confined to the first half. 

Instead, the real focus of Eddie Martin’s film rests on what happened to its cast of unknown performers, mostly non-professional skateboard fanatics who were recruited from the New York area where it was filmed and thrust into stardom once it became a hit. (If nothing else, this approach helps to minimize the on-screen presence of Harvey Weinstein, whose promotional savvy was one of the keys to the film’s success.)

Of course, we know what became of at least a couple of the cast members—Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson have both gone on to major stardom, while others like Leo Fitzpatrick and Jon Abrahams have eked out steady careers as well. But for many other participants, the heady initial rush of fame did not last. 

Over time, a number of them began to resent Kids for the way it took their lives and reduced them to mere commodities without giving them any of the benefits. Clark and Korine appeared to be going out of their way to downplay their participation, possibly out of fear that the combination of their youth and the activities they were filmed doing might cause a backlash. (This is especially evident in the footage that we see of a cringe-worthy Cannes press conference in which they clumsily dodge questions on that very topic.) In the cases of Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter, the results were tragic.

The result is a film that bounces back and forth between an examination of cultural appropriation from the perspective of those affected, and an airing of grievances from people who didn’t become as successful as Dawson and Sevigny and are still resentful about it. 

When it sticks to the former, The Kids is undeniably interesting. The interviewees discuss everything from how they were shut out of most of the benefits (ranging from not being allowed to attend the heavily hyped Cannes screening to getting nothing from photographs Clark later sold of the cast members) while getting hassled for photos and autographs from strangers who regarded them as just another tourist attraction. 

When it sticks to [examinations of cultural appropriation], The Kids is undeniably interesting.

At other times, it drifts into sour grapes territory, and the documentary becomes much less interesting as a result. 

The Kids could have used a little more detail in the early scenes about how everything came together, and it starts to run out of steam towards the end. No one’s going to put it on the same shelf as Hearts of Darkness anytime soon. 

However, it does raise some interesting points about Kids and its legacy. It’s fascinating to see how some of the lesser-known participants were able to move on from the experience, even going on to settle down and have kids of their own. Who knows? Maybe there’ll be another film down the line in which those kids see Kids for the first time and ask their parents many questions afterward.

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.