Kids opens with a scene that’s designed to shock and titillate, and few would deny that it succeeds. In unnerving close-up, we see Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), a New York teenager of about 15 (you’d call him the hero, if this movie had any heroes), locking lips with a cherubic young girl who looks as if she’d entered puberty last week. He tries some ”soft” seduction — his tone is romantic, his words crudely demanding — and then brutally takes her virginity, banging away on top of her (without a condom) in a victorious frenzy. What lends the encounter its especially nasty kick is the punchline: Telly meets up with his buddy, Casper (Justin Pierce), and proceeds to describe his sexual conquest as if he’d just eaten a Hostess Twinkie and the girl were the discarded wrapper.
For the next 90 minutes, Larry Clark’s starkly sensational, documentary-textured drama sends its characters through an escalating spiral of up-to-the-minute bad behavior. Played by a ferocious cast of nonactors, the dead-end adolescent rebels in Kids are like a wolf pack of baby sociopaths, leaping from one solipsistic sensation to the next. Stealing and drinking and taking drugs, beating a kid half to death, deflowering virgins — their every action is drenched in aggression, defined by it, fueled by the eternal hungry now of a culture engorged with violence and pop fantasy. Telly, with his big goofy cheeks and garbled white-B-boy patois, may resemble a postpunk Howdy Doody, but it’s easy to see how he gets young girls to sleep with him. He’s all cockiness, all will; his heart might be a clenched fist. Kids focuses on a small tribe, the blustery, rap-and-skateboard Manhattan kids who’ve honed their attitude on the knife edge of urban nihilism. But the movie speaks to larger undercurrents of desire and despair. Its real subject is the annihilation of empathy in American life.
Early on, Clark stages a provocative sequence in which he cuts between boys and girls hanging out in separate apartments, boasting about their sex lives. The boys, of course, are brimming over with horny bravado; but the girls are every bit as proud to have slept around. According to Kids, the collapse of the old double standard for sexual behavior has created a youth culture in which restraint — the postponement of pleasure — no longer means anything. The adolescents in this movie think about sex as much as teenagers always have. The difference is that they scarcely bother to think about anything else. It’s hardly a deterrent that the sex is suffused with danger. Two of the girls go for an AIDS test, and one of them — Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), who has slept only with Telly — learns that she’s HIV-positive. The movie, which is set over the course of one day and one long, partying night, is organized around her desperate trek through Manhattan to find Telly and inform him that his nonchalant delinquency has turned him into a de facto murderer.
If Kids is simultaneously engrossing and detached, observant and just plain showy, that may be because the film is so caught up in trying to be a statement that it never develops its characters beyond their rowdy, bellicose facades. This, of course, is supposed to be the point: As individuals, these kids are sealed off from one another. Sex isn’t just their favorite action — it’s their only interaction. Yet Clark makes the mistake of setting up a melodramatic thread that leads nowhere. The film is structured around our anticipation of how Telly will react when he learns he’s HIV-positive. But though Jennie eventually does catch up with him, the confrontation never occurs. Clark may have thought he was staying true to reality. In doing so, though, he botched his one chance to place Telly in a situation that might have melted his hard shell. We never get to see if the little son of a bitch has a soul after all. B