It's Been 20 Years Since Kids & I'm Still Haunted By It

Photo: Courtesy of Miramax.
I watched Kids for the first time sitting on the carpeted floor of my nanny's bedroom, alone. Earlier that day, I'd biked to the local video store and strode in at high speed, arms swinging with a cartoonish kind of confidence. I was going for casual, but as I grabbed the scratched up VHS case off the shelf, my heart began to thrum and my face went warm and prickly. I quietly placed the tape on the counter, along with Now & Then. I'd rented that movie approximately 400 times, but today it was just a buffer. With Now & Then on top, maybe the middle-aged cashier wouldn't notice Kids underneath. Or, at least he wouldn't think I was a total perv.

He zapped Now & Then with the scanner, then paused just briefly on the second video.

"Are you allowed to rent this one?"

I didn't choke or sputter some excuse about parental permission. Instead, I lowered my eyelids and gave him a small, congenial smile. I was the kind of twelve-year-old who could be 18 if she wanted. On the phone, I could be 35.

"Yes. I'm allowed."

He gave a short, embarrassed laugh and zapped the barcode. I biked home at top speed, the video burning a hole in my backpack.
Photo: Courtesy of Miramax.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the film's release, and the retrospective has been observed with great ceremony. In 1995, many reviews maligned the film both for its upsetting content ("virtually child pornography") and creative quality ("a melodramatic thread that leads nowhere"). Back then, Kids elicited rolled eyes and appalled gasps in equal measure, but this month it's been greeted with respectful applause. For all that hand-wringing back in '95, we now wax nostalgic for those heady days of HIV panic and subways with no AC.

"It would be impossible to make that film now," screenwriter Harmony Korine told The Guardian (apparently, "with a sigh") last month. "You could never get away with it."

That seems to be the general theme of Kids nostalgia. It's true that the story itself would be virtually impossible to sell today. The film takes place over the course of one day in New York City, following Jennie (Chloë Sevigny) — a sixteen-year-old who discovers she's contracted HIV from her first and only sexual encounter — as she tries to track down Telly, the guy who passed the virus on to her. Meanwhile, the promiscuous Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is running all over Manhattan on a quest to fuck two virgins in one day, apparently unaware of his HIV status.

Korine added at a recent BAM screening: "You could never make that movie because she would just call him on his cell phone."

But, the issue is not so much the technical constraints of the '90s as the creative freedom that decade allowed. This was the era that gave us Clerks, Swingers, Welcome To The Dollhouse, Trust, Pi, and Party Girl. Looking back, it's hard to deny there was a certain openness that allowed for the good, the bad, and the slightly bonkers (how 'bout that Pyscho remake?!). Kids was the filthy, impish loudmouth of the bunch, as frightening and obnoxious and worrying as the teenagers it followed. In that way, the movie did its job perfectly.
Photo: Courtesy of Miramax.
Amid all the retrospective hullabaloo, I've been trying to decide what kind of job the movie did on me, back when I was twelve. I spent the first years of my professional life in the film industry, so my first instinct was to say that Kids had somehow inspired that direction. But, while it may have played a role in sparking my interest, I watched a lot of movies in those days, many of which I admired more. I dragged friends through re-viewings of Metropolitan and The Ice Storm, delivering two hours of smartypants commentary. Kids I watched alone, with the door closed.

At twelve, you're in a thrilling kind of limbo. Teenager-dom is within arm's reach and yet that life appears so different from your own. High school kids, they're so tall and buxom. They're out drinking and driving, and you're still biking to the video store.

The summer of 1995 also saw the release of Clueless, which I'd seen at the local multiplex with my father on one of our regular divorced-dad movie outings. I left the theater flush with giddy anticipation of my young adulthood just a couple years away. Buckling up in the stifling hot car next to Dad (who'd slept through most of the movie) I marveled at how different things would be soon: I'd be driving myself to the movies, with my boyfriend. Then, I'd go to a party with him and all my many friends, instead of getting dropped off on my mom's driveway.

Months later, when I watched Kids, I got another side of the teenage story. Here, there were no high-tech closets, no lunch room flirtations, no lemonade sunshine shining down on every gym class where no one ever got sweaty. Kids was all sweat. Watching that film took me down a u-turn into the treachery of youth. It was sex, drugs, and mortal illness, and I cannot say it wasn't equally thrilling. Clueless promised the teenage dream but Kids offered the kind of titillation you couldn't watch with your dad.

Some called it a cautionary tale. I think it was a kind of horror movie. With all of its shocking, icky twists of the knife, what twelve-year-old could look away? That day on my nanny's bedroom floor I watched the credits roll and thought back to the video store cashier, my warm face blushing as he picked up Now & Then and saw the contraband beneath. I thought: Maybe I really am a total perv.

Now, as an adult, I understand the genuine nostalgia around Kids. It was a product of its time and, flawed though it may be, I've never seen a film that captures the beauty and revulsion of youth the same way. Also, as an adult, I want to go back in time, burst into the bedroom and yank that VHS out of the VCR, because I don't want a twelve-year-old watching that shit — at least, not by herself. I want to sit beside her and say: "Dude, being a teenager is going to be weird. It won't be like Clueless and it won't be like this, so just chill out and enjoy being twelve in the 90s. There's this thing called the Internet coming soon; you have no idea how much scary sexual shit you're about to see."

I'd probably tell her to go outside. Knowing me — knowing kids — she'd probably just ride her bike back to the video store and see what else she could find.

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