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The matter with Kids...

Call it sordid, pornographic even. But is it real, David Usborne asks teenage New Yorkers?
THERE WILL be no skateboarding in Manhattan's Washington Square this weekend: snow on the sidewalk. So what is a teenage boy in New York to do? The usual stuff. A little shoplifting, maybe. Get high, certainly. Beat someone up. And, oh yes, crack open a pubescent virgin or two.

That, anyway, would constitute a well-rounded day in the world conjured up by Larry Clark, whose bleak feature film Kids, about a day in the life of a group of the most unwholesome adolescents in the Big Apple, will be opening in London in the spring. All the above happens in the film - which was given an 18 certificate in Britain after a cut of only a minute, despite being restricted to specialist cinemas in the US - plus plenty more that granny would not care to know about. And skateboarding too.

Go and see it and you are likely to ask the question: is this real? With its non-professional actors and faux-documentary style, the director clearly wants you to think so. And the New York Times certainly took it seriously on its release last summer. The film, it said, was a "wake-up to the world" about what its teenagers were up to.

The film-maker drew his inspiration from hanging out in Washington Square Park in the summer of 1992 and watching the skateboarders. One day he was approached by Harmony Korine, then 19, who offered to write a script about the skateboarding culture. Thus the project was launched.

From the opening frames, you know what you are in for. Telly, a 16-year- old boy, is tongue-scouring the tonsils of a 13-year-old girl. The couple are in their underwear on a bed surrounding by stuffed toys and Beastie Boy posters. Finally there comes dialogue: Telly inveigling himself inside her. She gives in; cold and loveless copulation follows. Telly, who is all bones and white flesh, has another name for himself: the "Virgin Surgeon". Afterwards he brags to his best buddy, Caspar (while offering him a sniff of girl on his hand): "Virgins. I love 'em. No diseases, just pure pleasure."

And that is only the beginning. But the most disturbing revelation - and the one element in all the awfulness that provides the film with some dramatic momentum - is that our charming surgeon himself has a disease: the HIV virus that leads to Aids. Not only is he deflowering, he is killing.

That this film has at least some link with reality can hardly be disputed. Recent statistics show that 23 per cent of people with Aids in America are between the ages of 20 and 29, suggesting that they contracted the HIV virus as teenagers or very young adults. A recent survey of 10- to13- year-olds by a US youth crisis-prevention group, KidsPeace, suggested that more than half were fearful of contracting Aids.

But KidsPeace director James Feldman is among experts who have criticised Kids as overblown. "I think Kids is a caricature. If there's any reality to it at all, it may be that of the screenwriter or of his friends. It is not representative of teenagers across the country," he says.

Interviews last week with New York teenagers who had seen the film revealed diverging opinions . "I know that there are people who behave like that but I don't think that it is more than 1 per cent of the kids in America," says Denise Reich, 19. Denise, who lives in Riverside, a comfortable corner of the Bronx, went to see the film with a boyfriend who found it hilarious. "He was dying the entire movie. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world".

But another friend of Denise's took it seriously enough to suggest that parents go and see it to realise that "they need to talk to their children and educate their children about this".

Tennille Astor-Dias, 18, lives in Manhattan, just a few paces away from Washington Square. For her Kids was a fair mirror of what she has seen, even, she admits coyly, some of what she has lived. "But I hope I was a bit different to them," she laughs. She thinks her classmates have been sexually active since 15 at least, and even today some continue to have unprotected sex. Denise does not take risks but still gets tested regularly. Two of her relations have recently died from Aids.

"It was mostly pretty accurate," she says. "The atmosphere is very familiar to me. The script was real and the dialogue was real." Of Telly and Caspar, she notes: "They were like the cool people in my high school." Denise, by contrast, says that Telly was so loathsome that at her school "he would have been beaten up badly".

The girls had one common concern: that adult audiences might come away thinking that Telly and Caspar were representative of their generation. "What bothered me was that people who saw the movie would think that every kid in Manhattan was like that," says Tennille. "We're not."