On The Wild Side

Kids" was expected to be the sensation of Cannes, at least by everyone in the American press. Ever since its unveiling as a work in progress at the last Sundance film festival, photographer turned filmmaker Larry Clark's unflinching depiction of teenage lust pushed all the fight media-scandal buttons. A raw depiction of 24 hours in the lives of hormone-driven, trash-talking, drug-ingesting New York City kids, it was hailed by a few stunned critics for its honesty and denounced by others as kiddie porn. The controversy was adroitly fanned by its distributor, Miramax, which faced a dilemma. How could this Disney-owned company release a film likely to be slapped with an NC-17 rating? If that happens, Miramax's heads have hinted, they will create an independent company to release the film unrated.

The hype has not done the film any favors, and "Kids" has not exactly taken Cannes by storm. There were walkouts by some angry (or bored) viewers, and a press conference given by Clark was sparsely at-tended. Despite the incendiary subject matter, "Kids" seemed no more (and no less) than a promising first feature uneasily suspended between its gritty, faux-documentary style and its cautionary-tale moral-ism. The film is a grueling and disturbing account of a day in the life of Telly, a 17-year-old boy obsessed with seducing virgins, and his sensation-seeking friends. These kids--played by nonprofessionals-drink, smoke dope, steal, viciously beat up a skateboarder and stalk sex. Jennie, one of Telly's conquests, tests HIV-positive. This gives the film a ghastly element of suspense: will she track Telly down with the news before he beds his next virgin victim?

Bluntly explicit: Parents are going to find all this unnerving. The language is bluntly explicit, the braggadocio of the boys depressing, the sight of 12-year-olds smoking joints bound to raise hackles. But this sure isn't kiddie porn; rarely have sexual transactions seemed so depressingly mechanistic. Unlike Clark's extraordinary books of black-and-white photography, "Kids" is stunningly anti-erotic, though not untainted by sensationalism. By condensing all this inflammatory material into a 24-hour time frame, Clark and 19-year-old screen-writer Harmony Korine create an overwrought narrative that's sometimes tedious in its relentlesshess.

With all the fuss that will inevitably accompany its U.S. release this summer, "Kids" is destined to be denounced and proclaimed for reasons that have little to do with its quality as a film. In Cannes, it wasn't the best movie and it certainly wasn't the worst. Let the hype subside.