Twenty years on and the teens that populate Harmony Korine's Kids still seem as nihilistic, violent, troubling, funny, and astonishingly clever as ever. Shot in a cinema-vérité style, Korine's movie follows a group of friends over the course of one day as they wander Manhattan boozing, smoking, and skating. The teens spend much of the film traveling in a pack, forever in search of the next great party, or at least the next great hangout.
In one of Kids's most iconic shots, they walk casually down the median of a busy street, drinking malt liquor in brown paper bags. Written by Harmony Korine and directed by Larry Clark, the film launched Rosario Dawson, Chloë Sevigny, and Leo Fitzpatrick to indie fame. Dawson was cast at 15. Fitzpatrick was discovered skating in Washington Square Park. And Korine was 19 years old when he wrote the script, and spent most of his appearance on Letterman, meant to promote Kids, talking more about his own wild antics than the film itself.
Fitzpatrick plays the film's arguable villain, Telly, a late teen hell-bent on virginal conquests ("Virgins, I love 'em," he says in a voiceover. "No diseases. No loosey-goose pussy. No skank. No nothin'. Just pure pleasure.") In Kids' opening scene, Telly and a girl who looks barely 13 sloppily make out in the girl's bedroom, before Telly says, "I like you. I think you're beautiful, and I think if we fuck, you would love it. You wouldn't believe it." It's a line he'll repeat almost verbatim later that night to another virgin, also barely a teenager. Neither girl loves it. The previous summer, Telly slept with Jennie (Sevigny), also a virgin, unwittingly giving her HIV. After getting the results of an STD test, Jennie spends the movie searching for Telly to confront him and warn his next conquest.
Encapsulating the teens' extremely different philosophies toward sex is a scene that intercuts conversations between the boys and the girls about what each respectively expects and enjoys. Before Jennie and Ruby (Dawson) go to the clinic to get their test results, they sit around a cramped bedroom with their friends, most chain smoking, sharing tales of their sexual experiences. And it's Dawson's character Ruby that's the brightest flame. Even among her friends, Ruby has a little swagger; she teases. When Jennie laments that she won't ever speak to Telly after what he did (sleeping with her and never acknowledging her again), Ruby announces to the room, "He stole her virginity. He took it away, and now it's gone. Forever!" It's Ruby who wants to get tested at the clinic in the first place, having had sex with eight or nine men (she can't remember), several of those instances unprotected. It's Ruby who, as a clinic nurse asks her questions ("Have you ever had anal intercourse? With how many partners?"), shifts in her seat, distracted by the anatomy posters in the room.
I spoke over the phone to actress Rosario Dawson about getting cast in Kids, watching her peers normalize sex at such a profoundly young age, and the film's legacy now, 20 years later.
VICE: How old were you when you were cast in Kids? How was this even pitched to you?
Rosario Dawson: I had just turned 15, and I was hanging out on my stoop. My dad had actually told me to go downstairs and get discovered because they were shooting a commercial on the block and they were looking for people to dance. And me, I'm not dancing, I kind of just hovered around for the weekend downstairs while they were shooting. That's when Larry (Clark), Harmony, and the VP, and a few other crew members spotted me. They were scouting for locations in the neighborhood.
I was talking to someone, and I guess I was so loud that the whole crew of people all turned and looked at me. I remembered in that moment that they had said they were recording sound that day. I was like, "Aw, man, I'm going to get in trouble. They're going to tell me to be quiet." Instead they all said, "Oh my god! I'm making this movie, we're trying to scout locations right now, you're perfect"—literally jumping up and down going—"We wrote this role for you, you're perfect for this role. I haven't even seen you or know you, but you're perfect for this role, I wrote it for you." And [Harmony] kind of just told me all about it. I leaned over and was like, "Daaad, people are talking to me about quote-on-quote making a movie." I was in shorts and a T-shirt like, Why are you talking to me?
I went over to their office with my dad and auditioned. They had given me the script to read and my family was OK with it, excepting the fact that my character would be smoking. Otherwise, it resonated with them and they thought it worked and it was really well-written. I grew up among a lot of artists, so we appreciated the opportunity and what it meant. We didn't think much of it, considering they were picking people off the street, but we still thought it was a really good script and a really interesting world and very honest. I wasn't even remotely like that girl, but I knew that girl, I grew up with that girl. My mom was a teenage mom, so I knew so much about the vulnerabilities of this girl and the situation she's putting herself into.
I grew up around a bunch of girls, who at 13 or 14 were having sex with their boyfriends, who were usually drug dealers, and they were usually not using condoms, because the boyfriend preferred to do it "raw dog" because it felt better.
When Ruby and Jennie and their friends are just sitting around smoking and talking, there is so much posturing. The girls are so young and naïve, and yet they claim to have all this knowledge about being able to differentiate between what constitutes "sex" and "making love" and "fucking." What kinds of conversations were you really having with your female friends in real life about what sex really even was like?
I didn't even have sex until I was 20, so for me it was very far away from most of the reality of what I was talking about. I grew up around a bunch of girls, who at 13 or 14 were having sex with their boyfriends, who were usually drug dealers, and they were usually not using condoms, because the boyfriend preferred to do it "raw dog" because it felt better. I was just looking at these girls, going, "You are literally setting yourself up for the same cycle of violence and poverty that you're growing up in and that you're saying you want to be away from." The reality was really interesting because these girls went from 13 to 14 and after that summer break all of a sudden those girls went from liking TV shows and stickers to suddenly only wanting to talk about the sex that they were having. It wasn't that they had wanted to do these things, per se; it was sort of a by-product of the fact that they just developed too quickly, and I was a slow bloomer kind-of-thing. These girls suddenly had breasts and full tits. When they were walking down the street, even though they were young teenage girls, everyone treated them like they were women, and they were trying to acclimate to that. They were trying to normalize what was happening around them and the fact that grown men were giving them attention.
That's when I felt like Kids was worth doing. There were just all these girls around me normalizing the environment that they were in and posturing because of it. They were trying to be cool with what was around them and it was not necessarily resonating with them because they were co-opting what the other teens around them were doing. These were all kids coming from parents who worked really hard and weren't able to pay attention. That's what kids will do with idle hands.
My grandmother was watching it, going, 'Rosario, you know, I wish you had warned be before I went in,' and I said, 'Sorry, if I offended you.' She responded, 'You didn't offend me. There's not anything that's in this that anyone who's being honest can't connect to. I just wish you would have told me before I told all my church friends to go.'
A conversation that the girls in Kids aren't having at all is about the line between what is consensual and what isn't. We can look at someone like Telly, who preys on these pubescent virgins, and we know these girls haven't though about consent.
Even the girls I knew at the time who were having sex, it was because they were really pressuring each other because they all wanted to stay in the crew. It was as if because your body changed you had to change with it. There was so much attention that was being given to them, and they had to strut, they had to be tough, they had to be cool. They were giving hand-jobs in homeroom and blowjobs and I would think, What are you getting out of that? You're just being completely used and manipulated. Do you even know these guys? Do you even like this person? Do you like the way that they treat you? You could ask these questions and they'd get like a deer in headlights, like they'd never even considered it.
When you first saw the film in its entirety, how surprised were you when you saw the conversations that the boys were having about their sexual experiences versus what the girls were talking about?
Regardless of the fact that it was scripted and that a lot of people were non-actors, it just felt so raw. It was seamless between anything that was improv and anything that was scripted, because we were all just non-actors.
But I think both the girls and boys have aspects of posturing by a lot, and kind of being pushed. You've got kids teaching kids. They think they're never going to die, they're always going to stay young forever, they fight and they bounce back up after each scar. That's how fallible they are. Both were just really misleading in the fact that they sounded like they had a lot of experience or they sounded like they knew what they were talking about, and they really didn't.
Chloë Sevigny in 'Kids' (1995). Photo courtesy of Miramax/Photofest
In that particular scene, my character kind of drives the energy. Larry (Clark) would keep reminding me to be more forceful, be more aggressive. I was just so mesmerized by the process. Chloë was just playing this really interesting guy-ish kind of girl. She was way more advanced, she was older than I was, and she was this really cool it-girl street kid in comparison to myself. Even though I grew up on the Lower East Side, I was very sheltered. I just remember trying to talk to her about my different experiences and she just kind of looked at me and realized how opposite I was playing to myself. Most of the kids were really playing to themselves, and I think that's what Larry caught. Harmony, being 19 years old when he wrote it, made the language and everything feel so familiar, like a documentary. My grandmother was watching it, going, "Rosario, you know, I wish you had warned be before I went in," and I said, "Sorry, if I offended you." She responded, "You didn't offend me. I had to have children for a reason. There's not anything that's in this that anyone who's being honest can't connect to. I just wish you would have told me before I told all my church friends to go."
I think that's what makes the film still hold up today, regardless of how outdated it is. We used a payphone at one point. There were no cell phones in the movie. The premise doesn't even work today, considering how connected everybody is. Everybody's got a geo-locator on them. The whole idea of having to spend the entire day to look for someone doesn't even really work feasibly.
But there's a real connection to that moment in time, when you're trying to explore and figure out that next phase of life. You don't necessarily have the best mentors around you. You've got kids teaching kids. It's a moment in your life when you think you're never going to die, you're always going to stay young forever, you fought and you bounced back up after each scar, but that's actually not the reality—you can get pregnant, you can die, you can get a disease. That's how fallible and vulnerable we really are. I'm sharing that with my kids now. They can [bring up the sex conversation] whenever they want to. There's still just a lot of ignorance, silliness, provocation, curiosity, and adventure. It's just a lot of hormones.
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