Was Teen Life in the 1990s More 'Kids' or 'Clueless'?


The teenage experience has been portrayed innumerous times on the silver screen. In the summer of 1995, adolescent preoccupations with sex, drugs and rebellion were equally depicted in the films Kids and Clueless, but in strikingly different ways. Larry Clark's Kids was a grim, documentary-style look at the nihilistic turbulence of the coming-of-age of skater kids in New York City, with the camera tracking kids stumbling through lives defined by near-constant drug use, sex and gratuitous violence. Meanwhile, Amy Heckerling's Clueless captures the better-natured hedonism of affluent Los Angeles high school students. Both films became iconic of the 1990s' perception of the teenage experience. On July 24, 1995 Newsweek's John Leland examined and contrasted the two movies:

Drugs, Sex, Whatever

Movies: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The sunny "Clueless" and gritty "Kids" both look at adolescent lust and bad behavior.

In the summer's most compelling movie about teenagers, the passage through adolescence is a perilous haul. This is not the Hollywood idyll of Ozzie and Harriet. Family structures have broken down, parents and adults are either absent or irrelevant. The kids thrash about in a sea of pop cultural junk, cobbling lives out of casual sex and even more casual drug use. Moral issues are whatever. A drawn handgun is just a bad way to end an already bad night.

The movie is Clueless, the Mentos-fresh comedy from Amy Heckerling, who directed the teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Set in a snooty Los Angeles high school—I think you know the ZIP code—Clueless draws adolescence as a meaningless but zesty quest to get baked, get busy and get over—preferably in a form fitting Azzedine Alaia dress. In Larry Clark's Kids, which also opens this week, the teenagers stagger beneath a similar hormonal storm, but to much different effect. Shot in neutral, documentary style, and released without a rating—the MPAA deemed it a commercially damaging NC-17—Kids tracks a day in the life of some New York skate kids as they mindlessly troll for sex and drugs. Clueless is loosely based on Jane Austen's novel Emma; Kids evolved from Clark's graphic photos of street kids in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and New York shooting up, copulating and toying with guns. Otherwise, really, they're a lot alike.

Clueless is largely a long roll of shiny gift wrap for Alicia Silverstone, the 18-year-old siren whose pedigree includes roles in three Aerosmith videos. She doesn't so much come of age during the film as ripen. As Cher, the most popular girl in Bronson Alcott High, she is beautiful, pampered, savvy and owns a lot of daring plaid ensembles. Her life, as she says in the breezy opening voice-over, is "like a Noxzema commercial or what." She seems to be the only girl in school not undergoing cosmetic surgery (this movie never met a nose job it didn't like). She has the comfort of her own moral code. "It is one thing to spark a doobie or get laced at parties," she waxes, "but it is quite another to be fried all day." And her pout could melt a Carvel Cookie Puss. But still, all is not perfect for Cher. She lost her mother to a fluke accident during a routine liposuction. Her best friend, Dionne—"We were both named after great singers of the past who now do infomercials," she says—refers to Cher as "hymenally challenged." Worse, as another girl tosses at her, in the film's coldest cut, "You're a virgin who can't drive." And though she meddles selflessly in the romantic affairs of others, Cher herself is strangely without a boyfriend. Somehow, you just know by the third act she will find a way out of this existential heck.

Like Kids, Clueless proceeds without killjoy grown-ups or antagonists: no Officer Krupke, no Jim Backus in an apron. Adolescence itself is a menace to be subdued. These are teen films modeled after disaster movies. An evil essence descends on the citizenry, leaving havoc and occasional plot devices in its wake. (Evidently the baby boomers making teen movies these days, in the interest of being modern, have abandoned the quaint notion of parental responsibility.) Heckerling captures her characters' squirmings with affection and wonder. She has a sharp ear for slang. The multi-racial teens talk a careless mixture of Valley-speak and hip-hop argot. The African-American kids drop the Yiddish; the princesses talk Compton. When Silverstone, all saucer eyes and infectious comic twinkle, declares a round of junk food "dope," it is a Benetton moment.

Oceanic kiss: Kids, Clark's directorial debut, offers no such tender moments. "I wanted to show what it was really like to be a teenager," says Clark, who made the film after hanging out with skateboard kids in New York's Washington Square Park. "The hormones are raging. You have an intense appetite for sex and violence.… These Hollywood movies about teenagers aren't realistic at all." The film opens on Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), the "virgin surgeon," locked in an oceanic kiss with a girl barely out of puberty. (The actors, nonprofessionals, were at the time both 17; they're younger and more breakable than kids we usually see enacting this scene.) Telly is awkward but cocky, a half-man with a funny speech impediment. Surrounded by her stuffed animals, he coaxes the girl out of her virginity. After she has cried her way through his spasms, he deposits a puddle of spittle on her dining-room table, bolts outside and describes the encounter in cold detail to his friend. "Virgins," he says, "I love 'em. No diseases… No skank… Just pure pleasure."

This is the world of Kids: relentless predation, callous disregard and no real joy. There is also a lot of pot, and an occasional hit of something stronger. It is a boy's world; the girls here function mostly as ill-used toys. "They want you to be so kind, so gentle," says one boy. "Like you give a f--- or something." Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine, 21, evoke this world with vivid verisimilitude and a discomforting reluctance to pass judgement. It just is. At its most convincing, the film starkly captures the closeness between sexy teen swagger—the pretense of brutality—and the real thing. In Kids, as in his photos, Clark unflinchingly accepts both.

There's not much driving the plot: Telly wants to find the next virgin; Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), who discovers he has given her the AIDS virus, wants to tell him before he beds someone else. Along the way there's an extraordinary brutal spontaneous assault and a listless rape. But these are all awkward filmic devices, and they feel artificially imposed to squeeze a narrative out of static summer boredom. Boredom doesn't make a movie; it makes a photograph, and Clark's photos tell tougher, better stories than this film. Bluntly powerful in its imagery and milieu, Kids stumbles when it tries to shape itself into a feature film.

So why does all the underlying business—the mundane pursuit of heterosexual bunny-hopping and a good buzz—make such a sugary froth in Clueless and feel like the end of the world in Kids? The difference lies in part in Clark's grittier tone, but also in ways the films cast adolescence. In Clueless, as in most teen movies, adolescence is a hump to get over; when these kids talk makeovers, malls or drugs, they're really talking about rites of deliverance. In Kids, the reckless pursuit of sex and highs aren't metaphors for more elevated goals—they're what life is all about. Without glorifying it, Clark shows a romantic respect for this life, and for the dangerous boys who live it. In his work, Kids included, adolescence is more than an inconvenient obstacle in the arc of life: It is the raw nut. The film's most unsettling scene shows four boys of about 11 or 12 sitting shirtless on a couch, smoking pot and talking the talk of the older kids. In this disaster movie, the disaster isn't capped at the end, it's spreading its domain.