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Teenage Wasteland:
Kids
Clueless

reviews by Rob Gonsalves

DIRECTOR
Larry Clark

SCREENWRITER
Harmony Korine
STORY BY
Larry Clark
Harmony Korine
Leo Fitzpatrick
Jim Lewis

PRODUCERS
Cary Woods
Justin Pierce

CINEMATOGRAPHER
Eric Alan Edwards

MUSIC
Lou Barlow
John Davis

EDITOR
Christopher Tellefsen


CAST

Leo Fitzpatrick (Telly)
Justin Pierce (Casper)
Chloe Sevigny (Jennie)
Yakira Peguero (Darcy)
Rosario Dawson (Ruby)


MPAA rating: None
Running time: 91m
U.S. release: July 28, 1995
Video availability: VHS - DVD


See also:

- Gummo


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER
Amy Heckerling

PRODUCERS
Scott Rudin
Robert Lawrence

CINEMATOGRAPHER
Bill Pope

MUSIC
David Kitay

EDITOR
Debra Chiate


CAST

Alicia Silverstone (Cher)
Paul Rudd (Josh)
Brittany Murphy (Tai)
Stacey Dash (Dionne)
Dan Hedaya (Cher's Dad)
Wallace Shawn (Mr. Hall)
Breckin Meyer (Travis)
Justin Walker (Christian)
Jeremy Sisto (Elton)
Dicky Barrett (Himself)


MPAA rating: PG-13
Running time: 97m
U.S. release: July 19, 1995
Video availability: VHS - DVD


Like most movies that come wrapped in controversy, Kids doesn't quite deliver. The first-time director, Larry Clark, is rather like his protagonist: He comes on to you, has his rough way with you, and leaves you feeling empty and violated. I'm not writing this in an offended mood of high outrage. I wish I were. Kids is too dramatically listless, too artfully artless, to be truly offensive. Its single-minded, unblinking devotion to New York squalor is admirable to a point, but past that point you don't know why you're watching these skateboarder teen wolves or the brainless girls who passively spread their legs for them. The moments of genuine power are few and very far between.

Clark, a noted photographer with a taste for youthful dissipation and degradation, has said he originally set out to make a video about skateboarders; while hanging out with them, he met the 19-year-old Harmony Korine, who put together a script with the most tenuous of narrative threads. The central character, 17-year-old Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), is a "virgin surgeon" whose hobby is deflowering girls barely out of puberty. We meet one of his past conquests, Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), who has just tested positive for HIV. She spends the movie trying to find Telly and brief him on her condition, because he's the only boy she's ever slept with. Meanwhile, Telly zeroes in on another virgin, the sweet-faced, relatively innocent Darcy (Yakira Peguero). Then there's Telly's stoned-out buddy Casper (Justin Pierce), himself a virgin, though of course obscenely boastful about all the "bitches" he's bagged. He wakes up after the film's climactic party and, in one desperate and repugnant act, brings the plot full circle. Harmony Korine's raw-slice-of-life screenplay has a commercial eye: It has that cheap suspense mechanism at its core -- will Jennie stop Telly in time to save Darcy? -- and it has an ironic, literary symmetry beloved by young writers. Plus it has random spasms of sex and violence to keep our interest. Critics are calling this a daring movie.

I have nothing against depressing films. They can be cleansing, cathartic, and oddly comforting; the comfort derives from watching characters worse off than we are. But Kids, which purports to show the way things are, has nothing much to say about the way things are. Clark's quasi-documentary viewpoint is as limited as the kids' consciousness. And he's definitely a photographer, not a director. During the party scene, the camera sits stranded in front of four prepubescent boys parked on a couch, passing a joint back and forth. They're a pictorial study in decline, a free-floating Mount Rushmore image. The other kids serve the same iconic purpose, like Calvin Klein ads selling Clark's muted, alarmist vision of oblivion.

Whom is Kids for? Probably not for the audience Clark hopes to reach -- the kids who might supposedly be shown the error of their ways. (Clark has described Kids as "a cautionary tale.") The MPAA originally gave the movie an NC-17 rating, which would have pushed it off-limits to those under 17 whether or not they were "accompanied by a parent or adult guardian." But Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the brothers behind Kids' distributor Miramax, knew that the Disney-owned Miramax couldn't put out an adults-only film -- not after the flap over Miramax's Priest. So the Weinsteins bought the rights, created the one-shot company Shining Excalibur, and is releasing Kids under that label, and without a rating. This now means that kids can see it with their parents, but is that likely? The few parents who wouldn't be mortified sitting next to their children at this movie would probably fail in their attempts to get their kids to accompany them to "a cautionary tale." (And what kid would want to sit through the earnest parental discussion afterward?) Kids, then, is for adults, and, more specifically, for hip Gen-Xers who want to prove that nothing shocks them. But Kids isn't shocking -- not nearly as much as Hector Babenco's Pixote, or Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados (which is 45 years old!).

All right: Unlike the kids in those films, Clark's kids aren't murderers -- at least not consciously. But hasn't anyone noticed the dodgy contradictions in what Larry Clark says about his movie? Out of one side of his mouth, he comes on like a moralizer performing a public service ("Parents should see it with their kids"); out of the other side, he seems to back away from that, perhaps afraid to make Kids sound like an art-house Reefer Madness. Clark is both a 52-year-old concerned parent of two and an outlaw artiste clinging to his street cred. The movie itself reveals Clark's prurient interest in the ways these kids kill themselves. The mechanical zombie sex, the arrogantly open drug use (the kids smoke huge blunts in the park, as if getting busted weren't even a remote possibility) -- it's all part of Clark's hip loser aesthetic. Nobody on the screen has any aspirations aside from getting high or getting laid. It's a reductive vision and, at its core, a conservative one. Kids is like Porky's directed by Richard Avedon: crude yet slick, a sexualized turn-off.

The movie is an itchy blanket of nihilism thrown over us. The audience, on the lookout for anything entertaining, laughs in disbelief at Telly's come-ons and appalling blow-by-blow accounts of his sexual triumphs. Outside the theater, disgusted young women couldn't stop talking about how they would never have fallen for such rancid come-ons; their male companions, knowing they wouldn't be getting any that night, kept a respectful, shamefaced distance. (This is not, to put it mildly, a date movie.) Kids invites disdain for its characters, not understanding. Some of the come-on stuff is funny, in a low way. Another boy, squirming in helpless desire to get into some girl's pants, tries to win her over by promising her the moon: "I'll take you out to dinner .... I'll give you some food, buy you a corn dog." For variety, there are gross-out scenes: Casper dips a tampon into juice and sucks on it; a guy sitting passed-out next to a toilet gets pissed on.

Clark wants us to react. But what exactly does our reaction add up to? Impotent despair at the state of urban youth? The movie will probably attract neither the kids who most need whatever "lesson" it affords (they're waiting for the next Batman movie or horror movie) nor the older people in a position to make institutional changes (The Bridges of Madison County is more their speed). Kids, I'm afraid, is the latest trendy grunge event, all candor and no insight, designed to make college-age, middle-class city audiences feel as though they've walked on the wild side. And the kids (as they also were in another overpraised teens-from-hell drama, River's Edge) are so blank that you don't care about them -- with the possible exception of Darcy (played appealingly by Yakira Peguero), who is Harmony Korine's update of the maiden whose purity is endangered. (Korine's knight in shining armor is Jennie, I guess, but she's a singularly ineffectual knight.) You respond to these kids in a detached, abstract way -- you're supposed to be appalled at the idea of them. Kids is a horror movie for people who want to think the worst. But at the end, when the shaken Casper croaks "Jesus Christ, what happened?", there's no answer because we don't really know what drove him to do what he does. Artists too often shame us into accepting sketchy motivation as ambiguity. For Kids to be as disturbing as it wants to be, we'd have to feel the boy's goatish lust, the girls' self-loathing sexual passivity (these harsh, meaningless bangs may be the only attention they get). Larry Clark doesn't get inside his kids' heads. He just films their bodies, records their leering voices, then stands back and calls it a portrait.


At the beginning of Clueless, our heroine, the 15-year-old 90210 princess Cher (Alicia Silverstone), selects her day's outfit from the graphics on a computer screen, which not only shows her what matches but how each outfit will look on her. It's as if this powerful technology existed only to help Cher look fabulous for school. (We never see her use the computer for anything else.) Clueless, the best light-as-air teen comedy in ages, is full of little spins like that, and when I wasn't laughing I was at least smiling. The writer-director, Amy Heckerling, who's 41 now, made her debut with the preternaturally charming Fast Times at Ridgemont High; she still hasn't lost touch with what makes mall-rats tick, even if some of the jargon in Clueless is dated. (On Fast Times, Heckerling had help from Cameron Crowe.)

Amy Heckerling's gift as a director -- which can't be faked, and which is in short supply in current American movies -- is a deep affection for her subjects. She may aim satirical arrows at Cher and her bubbly friends, but the arrows have suction cups on their tips. Heckerling doesn't skewer these kids for who they are; she sees the unconscious (almost preconscious) humor in their indomitable cluelessness. (The movie's deadpan irony about its own giddy, pastel lightness is what The Brady Bunch Movie tried for and missed.) Without Heckerling's gentle amusement, the movie would either be a straight glorification of airheads (like most of Fast Times' rip-offs) or a bitter spray of venom like Heathers, which, in its refusal to acknowledge the humanity in the Heathers or the jocks, wasn't half as clever or original as it thought it was. Put it this way: I couldn't stand kids like Cher in high school, but Heckerling (and Silverstone) won me over, whereas Heathers merely pandered to my adolescent anti-prom streak.

Alicia Silverstone didn't much impress me in her debut, as the lethal Lolita in the inept The Crush (1993), where she tried to be diabolical but was just pouty and amateurish. I skipped her next feature (Hideaway) and somehow missed her famous Aerosmith videos, so I can't say whether her fine comic touch in Clueless is part of a gradual advance, or a quantum leap, or (as I suspect) more a matter of her performing within her range. She has wonderful eyebrows that curl up in puzzlement or romantic anguish, and she gives Cher (who's still a virgin) an appealing imperviousness. Cher is just as forthright with her gruff but harmless dad (Dan Hedaya) as she is with a bland hunk who makes a move on her. And she won't be swayed by peer pressure; Cher, the most popular girl at school, is above peer pressure -- she sets the standards.

Heckerling has assembled a terrific supporting cast. When Cher takes the podium in debate class and holds forth on how we should make room for Haitian refugees because "there's no RSVP on the Statue of Liberty," the scene is funny, but Wallace Shawn, as the teacher, turns it into a classic with his stupefied "Have we fallen this far?" expression. Stacey Dash has some fresh moments as Cher's best friend Dionne, who yells at her goofy boyfriend but also has a warm rapport with him "when nobody's looking." As the new girl Tai, who becomes Cher's makeover "project," Brittany Murphy could be Marisa Tomei's stoned baby sister; she has a natural rhythm, as if her lines had just popped into her head and surprised her.

The male-written Fast Times took a dimmer view of guys than Clueless does, perhaps because Cameron Crowe was privy to guys' crude talk about girls. Heckerling gives guys their due. As the smooth Christian, whom Cher has a crush on, Justin Walker has a great bit when he politely escorts Cher to a dance, only to forget about her when he spots a cute guy to dance with. (Cher takes this revelation in stride -- Christian becomes a cool guy to shop with.) The real find may be Paul Rudd as Cher's stepbrother Josh, who listens to "complaint rock" (his theme song is Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees"), pores over Nietzsche, and spars good-naturedly with Cher. Rudd is the spokesperson for those in the audience who find Cher appealing but mildly ridiculous, and he's very winning. Heckerling handles her young cast with a light, easy touch; watching them, you remember what a great ensemble Fast Times had. (Clueless has its own Jeff Spicoli, a stoner skateboarder who serves as a relaxed and inadvertent counterpoint to the stoner skateboarders in Kids. This being the '90s, the stoner becomes a twelve-stepper.)

Back in 1982, the sexual frankness of Fast Times upset a lot of (adult) critics -- in some surface ways, it was the Kids of its day. The scene in which Phoebe Cates instructed Jennifer Jason Leigh in matters of fellatio ("Don't bite") said more than a thousand sociological studies: Those kids, with precious little guidance at home, had to steer each other (and themselves) past the pitfalls of budding sexuality. Neither Fast Times nor Clueless turn adults into cartoon ogres (a key point of departure between Heckerling and the perpetually snotty John Hughes), but they do recognize that the financial realities of the last quarter-century have left kids almost entirely to their own devices. Larry Clark paints this adultless world as an apocalypse of immorality and irresponsibility; Heckerling is more sanguine. She knows most kids stumble and fall, but also help each other up and generally turn out okay.

Clueless is softer than Fast Times. There's no hellish-devirginizing scene, no abortion, not much in the way of drugs (Cher takes a few hits of weed but believes in moderation); it's essentially asexual. What Heckerling achieves in Clueless is a self-contained fantasyland full of colorful, smartly observed people, who, for all their pastel poppiness, are more real to us than the human wreckage in Kids. The irony for me is that normally I'd be praising the depressing drama and panning the light teen comedy. But Heckerling is a real director, and her best movies are comedies of companionship and kindness. Clueless is a happy bubble, and Alicia Silverstone comes into her own as a confident young comedienne. She never pushes you to like her; you just do. The same is true of the movie.




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