The story goes that Harmony Korine, a 19 year-old skateboarder, was hanging out in Washington Square Park when a photographer named Larry Clark approached him about writing a film. Three weeks later, Korine handed Clark the script for Kids, a 24-hour immersion into the lives of morally bankrupt teenagers in New York City. The origin story probably isn’t true but it’s fun to think so, especially because the resulting film turned in one of the most eye-opening portrayals of teen life in film history. It’s lewd, abrasive and steeped in every illegal substance imaginable. It also jumpstarted the careers of Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson and exposed the free-for-all that is young adulthood. Twenty years after its release, Kids remains a shock to the senses. But the film’s provocations aren’t what make it special. It’s the heart that beats in the young men and women who look out at the world and wonder what the hell they’re going to do with the rest of their lives.

Skipping the cuteness and courtship of young love, Kids opens on a teenage boy coaxing a teenage girl into having sex. The boy is Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), a scrawny knot of hormones. He wraps his toothpick limbs around the girl and tells her not to worry, “Because I love you. Because I think you’re beautiful.” Telly is wooing us as much as he’s wooing her. The girl consents and Larry Clark’s camera lingers as the girl winces in pain and pleasure while Telly thrashes on top of her. The scene isn’t cute or sexy—it’s real. And it’s this disturbing sense of realism that makes the film’s depravity so immensely watchable.

If adults think about sex every seven seconds, the cast of Kids thinks about it every two. They talk about it constantly and pick apart all the dirty details, from bodies and smells to turn ons and positions. Korine splits the conversation between two gangs, one for each gender and it’s a refreshingly equal portrayal, squashing the notion that boys care more about sex than girls.

The revelry is interrupted when Jennie (Sevigny) and Ruby (Dawson) visit an STD clinic. Ruby’s had sex with eight boys, and Jennie gets tested too, even though she’s only had sex with Telly. When the results come back, Ruby is clear but Jennie isn’t so lucky. She’s diagnosed with AIDS, and for the rest of the film she wanders in a daze, searching for Telly to tell him the news.

Larry Clark grounds his film in quintessentially New York sights and sounds. Telly and his friend Casper (Justin Pierce) take the subway at 77th Street. They make pit stops at bodegas and shout at their friends through apartment windows. The entire film takes place on one hot summer day, recalling the set-up of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. With its slang, high energy and hip-hop soundtrack, it also shares some of that film’s urban panache.

Like the photographer Diane Arbus, Larry Clark is drawn to the marginal, the displaced and the easily ignored. In one scene, he shows a mentally challenged boy dance for spare change. In another, he pauses to watch a man with no legs pass Casper and Telly on the train. For Clark, the difference between “normal” and “abnormal” is slim. His roaming youth might have families and bank accounts, but they’re as lost as everyone else and they know it, too.

Kids culminates in a raging party where adolescents cuss, drink, smoke and have unprotected sex. We don’t know much about these characters but their words, gestures and attitudes speak volumes about where they come from and who they’re trying to be. Clark captures all the weird, tiny moments, like when a shirtless boy giggles while a girl kisses his chest and a different boy pukes in the bathroom with a plate of food scraps perched on the sink. They’re not thinking about their parents or their futures and that’s the point. Happiness is a form of forgetting.

For all its feel-good partying, Kids is a tragedy. Its sensationalist surface conceals a well of insecurity in these aimless teens. They have no inhibitions, no supervision and nowhere to go. This is their gift and their curse. The consequences of their choices are embodied by Jennie. Cursed with a disease she doesn’t deserve from a boy she never loved, she walks in a daze. She visits a nightclub and takes a pill to forget her sorrow. Colors flash across and she slips into silhouette. We see her as clearly as she sees herself.

When Kids was first released, it garnered split opinions. Roger Ebert called it, “raw, bleak and unfiltered,” while the critic for The Washington Post called it “child pornography.” Indeed, the final scenes of Kids are disturbing. Korine and Clark seem intent on unraveling the whole notion of innocence. The final line of the film is delivered by Casper, who stares at the camera and says, “Jesus Christ, what happened?” We were wondering the same thing.

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