‘The Kids’ Aims To Rewrite The Tragic Narrative Of The Skate Teens In Larry Clark's Notorious Film [Tribeca Review]

What would it be like to see your childhood friends rise to fame, scratch at fortune, then die tragically young, only to become googled curiosities and cautionary tales? This was the journey of Hamilton Chango Harris, who appeared alongside his real-life skater pals in Larry Clark’s 1995 hit, “Kids.” Now, Harris aims to rewrite the narrative of the late Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter with “The Kids,” a documentary that reveals disturbing behind-the-scenes secrets and their aftermath.

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26 years since “Kids” wowed critics and scared the hell out parents; documentarian Eddie Martin caught up with the New York City teens, who were its inspiration. A wealth of videos shot by the kids (and for them) introduces scrawny youth, beaming in between blunt hits and wearing oversized t-shirts or sagging jeans. Then, Martin cuts to talking-head interviews, framed wide so we can see them not only grown but also in settings that suggest growth in status: a pristine white couch, dapper attire, walls dense with books. While the focus is on the tragic fates of Pierce and Hunter, Harris becomes the doc’s star subject. Credited as producer and writer, he is the key interview and our guide. From the start, he confidently details not just the neighborhood that shaped these kids but also the pervasive poverty and systemic injustice that pushed their parents into drug addiction and them out of the house, hungry for escape.

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They turned to skating, finding freedom in the flight of tricks, community in the crew of kids, and hope in dreams of becoming a pro skater. They hung onto the sport long after it edged into uncool. They clung to each other, forming a chosen family that was loyal and protective in a way their home lives were not. They also partied. Photos and videos from these days frankly present them skating, swearing, showing off to the camera, and getting high. It’s easy to see how Harmony Korine, a then 19-year-old NYU film student, was awed by them. Reflecting on these days, Harris paints a picture of youth, radiant and charismatic, despite their personal trauma. But the tone changes when Clark creeps into the frame. VHS video shows a fifty-something older man with grey hair, towering over the young teens, but slumping his shoulders and dressing like them in an ill attempt to fit in. He’s a real-life version of the Steve Buscemi “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” meme. Except Clark is not just a poser; he’s a predator.

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Harris is openly accusatory on this point, speculating that Clark purposefully targeting runaways and kids who were unsupervised, then weaseled his way into their good graces with free drugs. Several of the cast say real drugs were used on set. Some recount Clark’s aggressive behavior directing scenes involving sexual content and nudity, which led to the film’s NC-17 rating and scandalized national news stories. Highlyann Krasnow recounts how she bowed out of the project when she saw Korine’s script had perverted the group’s platonic bonds into a sex-obsessed circle, where girls were treated chiefly as conquests. No problem. Clark cast outside the crew, thereby launching the acting careers of Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson (neither of whom are interviewed).

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The final manipulation came ahead of the “Kids” premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival, where Clark and Korine strode onto the red carpet without any of the titular stars. In New York, the kids, who regularly shoplifted to eat, were treated to a party with a full buffet of free food, then handed cash and urged to sign contracts. It had “hush money vibes,” Jon Abrahams explains. Smartly, Martin then cuts to a contentious press conference, where Korine and Clark insist to reporters that no real drugs were used and no ethical boundaries crossed in the film’s making. 

All of this is unnerving, efficiently laid out as a condemnation of an unethical, cannibalistic branch of filmmaking, where children in poverty might be exploited to make sensational films, only to be discarded when the movie is wrapped. However, The Kids” isn’t interested in this broader conversation about artistic ethics. The second half of the doc closely follows the downward spirals of Pierce and Hunter, who’d hoped to become professional actors from the big break of “Kids.” Their friends and family share heart-warming stories that present both as charming and compassionate people who fought hard against the family trauma that threatened to bring them down. Archival footage and home videos bolster this depiction, showing them in interviews or playing to a crowd. However, the doc’s thread comes unraveled when it comes to their final years and tragic ends.

Anecdotes about Hunter slip into vagueness about shady people and business deals gone bad. One of Pierce’s friends boldly declares that he wouldn’t have died if it weren’t for “Kids.” Martin doubles down on the theoretical by introducing a jolting segment that suggests Pierce could have had a happy ending if it weren’t for a family secret kept too long. In each instance, Martin doesn’t push his interview subjects to places beyond their comfort. They are given the space to say whatever they want completely unchallenged. That may be exactly the point.

For nearly three decades, the story of “Kids” was defined onscreen and off by Clark and Korine. They heard the stories of poor kids scraping by in New York City, took their names for the screenplay, captured their faces on film, and repackaged the lot into something designed to outrage the adults, who were terrified of teenage agency, sex, violence, and drug use. They created a fictional film that was embraced as near-documentary, uncaring of what would do to its muses and stars. Some chased the fame they were promised into an early grave. Those that survive are stepping into the spotlight to tell their side. Perhaps that “The Kids” leans hard into emotional speculation isn’t a problem, but the plan. This film may change the way you look at “Kids,” but its greater purpose is to change the way you think of its lost boys. So, their surviving friends remember them warmly, defend them intensely, and then imagine a timeline where not only “Kids” hadn’t been made, but also where “The Kids” didn’t need to be (Korine and Clark unsurprisingly did not want to appear in the documentary)

It doesn’t make for a great documentary, but it does make for a fascinating and daring one, befitting the legacy of its departed stars. [B]

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