Teenage Lust is the name noted photographer Larry Clark gave to one of the collections of his work published in book form. The title has the ring of a drive-in exploitation picture of the '60s.
One can almost see the breathless ad copy on the poster: "SEE modern youth driven by drugs and a rock 'n' roll beat into a frenzy of desire, rage and WILD, NO-HOLDS-BARRED SENSATION!" Unlike most of the "troubled youth" pictures marketed this way, Clark's first work as a feature filmmaker, Kids, lives up to these extravagant claims. This gritty cinma vrit drama is truly unflinching in its portrayal of teens at catastrophic play. Tracing the adventures of several (mostly white) postpubescents during a summer day in New York City, Clark gives us a harsh vision of disturbingly untroubled youth--drugged-out, sexually precocious, violent and blankly unconcerned about the peril they're in.
Clark's career in still photography was based on his being exactly this sort of kid himself, and recording the images that came with the turf. The Oklahoma native and ex-con, now in his early 50s, claims to have started shooting amphetamines when he was 16, only a few years after he first learned to shoot photos, for his mother's itinerant baby-picture business.
His first book-length collection, the 1971 Tulsa, is a chronology of photographs depicting the descent of his friends into drug-addled misery. The earlier pictures have a certain James Deanish glamour, while the later ones are a shocking gallery of joyless squalor and death.
Though Clark is widely regarded as an important artist, his subsequent effort, 1983's Teenage Lust, raised an eyebrow or two over Clark's seemingly prurient feelings toward his subject matter. Now Kids, which carries an NC-17 rating for its highly convincing depictions of young teens having unprotected sex and doing drugs, is raising a few eyebrows, as well.
The central character is Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), who pursues his chief interest--deflowering virgins--with the zeal of a full-blown fetishist. He uses the same smooth lines on all of his heartbreakingly young-looking targets, and they say the same thing to him just before they surrender to his advances: "Do you care about me?" Minutes later, Telly reports his success to his pal Casper (Justin Pierce) in gleeful terms.
Although we later see Telly and friends engage in drug use and petty theft, and also savagely beat a skateboarder, possibly to death, it's Telly's fixation with leaving his mark on girls barely past 12 that gives Kids its horrifying quality.
The screenwriter, who bears the euphonious name Harmony Korine, came up with a jolting device by which to give the film a suspenseful frame. One of Telly's past conquests, Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), learns that she's HIV-positive, and Telly is the only possible source.
In the only even minimally responsible course of action taken by any of the characters, she goes off looking for Telly to inform him of her diagnosis. We crosscut between her search and Telly--who either doesn't know or doesn't care about his condition--as he zeros in on yet another innocent young lamb, Darcy (Yakira Peguero).
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To deny that Kids is shocking would be to indulge in the provincial pose of refusing to be shocked. Surely, if heartlessness and destructive ignorance are horrible in adults, they must be even more horrible in children, and Clark's skill at documentary-style realism, along with the performances he gets from his cast, are plenty sufficient to make you believe what you're seeing.
It's a dodge to insist, as some of the film's detractors are doing, that Kids is invalidated by its excesses. Of course, most teenagers don't live in this world, though most probably brush up against it at least once or twice. But allowing for dramatic compression, we all know that this sort of activity does happen, that it happens a lot and that it happens wherever you find teenagers. Though probably more rampant now than ever before in this century, to some extent it's always happened.
As with MTV's hilariously incisive, grievously maligned satire Beavis and Butt-head, condemning Kids because you don't like what it depicts is killing the messenger. Clark can't, however, escape another charge so easily--that of falling into the trap which Beavis and Butt-head's Mike Judge has always avoided: the glamour trap. There's a distinct, disquieting whiff of teenage lust in Clark's own sensibility, and there are times when it throws the movie off-kilter. But perhaps without this hint of infatuation, Clark's film would also lack the compassion it shows for these monstrous, lost babies.
An ironic final note: There's a puzzling throwaway reference to star Bowery Boy Leo Gorcey in Kids. It's explained by the fact that screenwriter Korine is the grandson of Gorcey's on-screen pal Huntz Hall. These dead-end Kids of the '90s carry a pedigree that goes back two generations.