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(Credit: The Guys Upstairs)


'Kids': Larry Clark's dark vision of the American youth

'Kids' - Larry Clark

In his seminal essay titled The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus wrote of the great existential struggles of modernity while listing the fundamental elements of an absurd life. Camus cited the examples of the womanising Don Juan, the ephemeral actor and the ever-encroaching conqueror, claiming that these were the strategies that we have incorporated to battle our existential voids.

In Larry Clark’s Kids (written by Harmony Korine), three modes of existence combine to form a vision of American youth that is debilitatingly bleak. The legacy of Kids is an extremely polarising one, with many audiences having formed a nostalgic attachment to the depiction of the urban coming-of-age experience when they first watched it. Without fail, the film becomes increasingly difficult to get through as you grow up.

Often labelled as ‘teensploitation’ and even referred to as child pornography by many, Kids is a strange relic from the 1990s which follows a group of kids around New York City as they engage in one delinquent activity after another. These children are the manifestation of Camus’ absurdism – hiding behind constructed personas like the actor, chasing the next orgasm like Don Juan and thinking of women as commodities to be owned like the conqueror.

In the ’90s, HIV was a serious threat and it was nowhere close to being as manageable as it is today thanks to the efforts of medical experts and targeted efforts to spread awareness about the condition. Kids exists in that bubble of paranoia, hedonism and existential absurdity, chronicling the extremely unsettling adventures of a teenager named Telly (played by Leo Fitzpatrick) who is only concerned about “deflowering” virgins.

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Instead of using Camus’ terminology, Clark’s absurd man is referred to as the “virgin surgeon” which is strangely appropriate for the microcosms these kids inhabit. Fuelled by teenage hormones, alcohol, drugs, extreme homophobia and misogyny, Telly believes that the only purpose of his life is to be remembered as the guy who took the virginity of little girls because that is the equivalent of a Greek hero in his sick, slowly rotting mind.

Parallel to Telly’s odyssey, we observe the tragic circumstances that Jennie (Chloë Sevigny) finds herself in as she tests positive for HIV even though she has only had sex one time — and it was with Telly who manipulated her. In order to stop him from manipulating other girls and infecting them as well, she embarks on her own journey to find him in this urban wasteland of overflowing filth only to be raped by Telly’s friend Casper (Justin Pierce).

There are many subversive elements in Kids that can be used to prove its artistic merit, the most important of them being the disturbingly raw portrayal of American kids which acts as a direct critique of the highly sanitised versions found in rom-coms and other mainstream productions which are designed that way to adhere to the logic of the market. The realism of Kids is definitely overpowering and was even revelatory for many at the time of its release.

However, the same point can be used to locate the inherent problems with the production of Kids such as the fact that Clark was in his 50s when he made it. In addition, a new documentary was released recently which showed how the making of the film had affected the lives of the actors involved in Kids who had no idea about the impending impact that the cult classic would go on to have.

Two of those actors had untimely and extremely tragic deaths while Hamilton Harris reflected: “25 years ago, yes, I felt exploited. Yes, I felt, ‘Aw, man, I thought it was going to be more than it actually was.’ 25 years later, today, in my late 40s, I see differently.” Just like Telly had manipulated those young girls into sleeping with him, these kids felt like Clark had also engaged in similarly sinister manipulations.

Feminist critic bell hooks even rightly pointed out that the film’s subtextual messaging about HIV was highly conservative despite its postmodern vision which was problematic in itself. All these years later, Kids is still just as polarising but the one thing that cannot be negated is the lingering cultural impact. Many new projects are also working against the stereotypical regurgitations in films and shows about the modern teenage condition and the most vocal of those successors is HBO’s Euphoria.

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