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Film review: Kids

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In the July-August issue of "Film Comment," film critic/historian Harlan Kennedy begins an article on the recent Cannes Film Festival by pointing out that "Kids" was the hot ticket: "The entire population of the Cote d'Azur was trying to get into the press show of `Kids.' Half an hour later most of us would be trying to get out."

That pretty much sums it up.

"Kids" is pretentious exploitation, if that's not an oxymoron — a movie that pretends to be concerned with making an important social statement about modern youth, but which instead is just relentlessly in-your-face, wallowing in degradation to make a quick, controversial buck at the local multiplex.

One could argue that "Dangerous Minds" (reviewed elsewhere in this section) doesn't truthfully represent the youth of America any more than the Disney teen comedies of the '50s or the "Beach Party" farces of the '60s. But the argument also applies to "Kids."

In fact, if "Kids" did truthfully represent modern teenagers, we might be having one-sided public debates about exterminating them.

The film is largely plotless and hopelessly redundant, focusing on a group of young teenage losers in New York who occasionally roam the streets looking for trouble but who spend the bulk of their days and nights going from apartment to apartment having parties — the kind of parties where people smoke dope, get drunk, throw up and have sex. Not necessarily in that order.

In and around this series of disgusting vignettes, however, "Kids" does have a pair of intersecting, if paper-thin story lines. The first concerns Telly (played by Leo Fitzpatrick, whose mumbled dialogue is often unintelligible), a young teenage boy whose sole aim in life is to deflower as many virgins as possible. (The film begins and nearly ends with scenes of him doing just that. As he seduces each girl, she asks, "Do you care about me?" His insincere reply is pat: "Of course I do.")

In the opening moments, Telly notches up another sexual conquest, shoplifts at a small market, steals money from his mother and lies about looking for a job. Later, he joins in when his friends beat, kick and nearly kill a boy who is gay.

The second plot element has a young girl named Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) discovering she is HIV-positive. Since she has had sex only once, Jennie knows who infected her and she goes on a search for the boy that lasts long into the night. Wouldn't you know it? The boy is Telly.

The film concludes with Jennie, who has mixed pills and alcohol, finding Telly at a party (where else?). She walks in on him while he's in bed, making another conquest. But Jennie is too stoned to say anything and goes into another room and crashes in a chair. The next morning, Telly's best friend Casper (Justin Pierce) finds Jennie unconscious and, taking advantage of her comatose state, rapes her, unwittlingly exposing himself to AIDS.

Although it's easy to conclude long before this final graphic scene that "Kids" is just outrageous exploitation in an art-film cover, this rape scene is the clincher. The camera lingers on the action forever.

First-time director Larry Clark, a 52-year-old photographer (among whose photo books is something called "Teenage Lust") goes for the "NYPD Blue" technique, using a darting, hand-held camera, with soundtrack songs and ambient sounds that are too loud, as well as unknown, naturalistic actors, all combined to give the movie a pseudo-documentary sensibility. Instead, however, it's just annoying.

This is a carefully scripted and photographed effort, despite the fact that nary a single frame provides insight or revelation.

Though there is nothing in "Kids" that goes beyond what has been portrayed in dozens of R-rated movies, the fact that underage kids are involved — and that final rape scene — may have contributed to the rating board's decision to give this film an NC-17. The distributor (Miramax Films) declined to accept it, however, as its parent company (Walt Disney) has a policy not to release NC-17 movies. So, a new company (Excalibur Films) was formed and the film is being released without a rating.

"Kids" contains wall-to-wall violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drug abuse.