Lost in virgin territory

'Kids' is more frank than honest, more manipulative than you'd expect.
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The Independent Culture
Urban parents, particularly of pre-teen daughters, who have seen Larry Clark's Kids in America are likely to be considering a move to the suburbs or a small town, where there is nothing worse to fear than the neighbourhood psycho. The world of Kids is far from the sweet materialism of Clueless, and the drive of the film is to show, with hand- held camera work, unprecedented frankness about sex and drugs, and non-professional actors who for once are the same age as the people they play, that older folks are altogether clueless about how the young live today.

Much of the outcry about Kids is similar to the shock and disbelief that greeted the death of River Phoenix. What people are saying is, "How could this be going on without me having any idea?", prompting the counter-question: might it have something to do with the fact that you so much don't want to know?

At the same time, Larry Clark's film is more frank than honest. The screenplay, by a 19-year-old skateboarder called Harmony Korine, does a pretty thorough job of dismantling the pieties about his generation. (That's what you get for calling your son Harmony.) It was the director, though, a well- known photographer making his first venture into the movies, who supplied the plot outline, which has its fair share of melodrama and moral manipulation. If Kids pulls the rug from under the viewer, as the adverts claim, that's because the film has placed its rugs with some care, and well in advance.

Kids starts with a full-tongued kiss between two young people. It's daylight. There's no music, and they're already slightly sweaty. He presses her to have sex, and she says, "Do you care about me?" As she shows by her tragic involuntary smile, asking that question commits her to believing the answer. Soon she is being deflowered - though in Kids this is a boys' word, and the girls say devirginised instead. Not so much a symbolic sullying as a neutral surgical procedure. But then it's in the girls' interest to minimise the no-win situation of the modern hymen: keep it and you're nobody, lose it and you're anybody.

Rug number one is whisked away with the boy's voice-over, starting "Virgins. I love 'em." What we have seen is his hymen-winning routine, and Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) has high hopes of taking another maidenhead before bedtime. The arrival of three new formal elements in quick succession (voice-over, pounding background music, opening titles) prevents us from wondering about the absence of parental supervision. As Kids goes on, the invisibility of parents becomes more of a problem - perfectly possible in any individual scene, but cumulatively absurd.

Kids aims for a verite feel, while also compressing a lot of sheer event into the space of a single day. Not only is it the day Telly scores big time, it's the day that Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) finds out she's HIV-positive. She's only ever had sex once, a year ago. It's not even as if she liked it that much. This part of the film is almost like a public service announcement, setting out to show us that Nice Girls Can Get HIV. When it turns out that Jennie's only lover was Telly, Kids compromises its documentary pretensions by offering us a highly improbable case history. Presenting a teenage boy with a virgin fetish and no history of needle use as an infectious agent seems like the stuff of moral panic rather than reality. The tabloids no doubt protect us from some harsh truths, but they're not likely to suppress stories about serial seducers of virgins spreading HIV.

Telly is characterised as a perfectly ordinary little manipulator, but the fact of his also being a heat-seeking missile full of virus aimed at the undefended young makes a certain impact of its own. The effect is to offer up the amateur actor's mannerisms - his lopsided mouth, his wheedling head shake, the nose-wrinkles when he smiles - to an audience's fear and hatred. Without this element of hysteria, Kids would be a more truthful film. It would also not be in the headlines.

Early in the film, with a pair of intercut rap sessions about sex, it looks as if women are being presented as warmer and stronger than men, but for most of the film Jennie wanders blankly around in search of Telly, first numb and then chemically intoxicated. The melodrama of confrontation - will she find him before he makes his next fatal conquest? - is averted at the last minute, but Clark has milked the prospect plentifully by then.

Telly's friend Casper (Justin Pierce) at first seems like a more attractive figure. He gives money to an amputee on the subway, and gazes at Telly's mother breastfeeding as if she was an obscurely arousing nature programme on TV. But then he starts a fight in the park - with a black guy, though there's no racial agenda, since kids of all races join in beating him. This is the film's single most sensationalised scene, in the swiftness of its savagery and the alienating jauntiness of the music that accompanies it. Nobody before Larry Clark has suggested that dope (which the kids have been so doggedly consuming) sharpens the reflexes.

In the progress of its story, Kids is studiously upsetting, and finally, with Casper raping a comatose Jennie, triumphantly ugly. Yet there is enough that is persuasive in the film to leave something behind.

There's a long conversation at a party between four boys sitting squashed together on a sofa. They're about 10 years old, they have beautifully varied skin tones, they're smoking joints - it's like a Benetton ad even Benetton wouldn't run. They say things like, "A person like me smokes till I 'lucinate, I don't know why." One boy, praised for the gold crucifix round his neck, preens adorably. An audience will simply not allow these children to be anything but innocent, whatever they say or do. We love such puppies, but we fear the creatures they will turn into, when their manly posing is more convincing and their sexuality un- deniable. The effective part of Kids is the part that makes audiences think about their fears and not take refuge in them, as the main plot line demands.

Harmony Korine has put a lot of things about adolescence into his screenplay that normally get left out. But what has he left out? Frustration and boredom - not drug-induced disorientation, but plain unmedicated boredom. Crucially, too, bravado. On the two occasions when a teenage boy seems to be exaggerating - about sex with virgins, about the beating in the park - we realise he is telling the truth. Yet male adolescence contains a large quotient of bravado.

Perhaps Larry Clark, who happened on the world of Kids when he started skateboarding and hanging out in the park, is part of a larger cultural development. In the past 20 years we have gone from disbelieving what kids say on principle, to believing what they say - sometimes also on principle. It isn't new for a film about youth to be compromised, but Kids is compromised in some new and unexpected ways.

On general release from tomorrow