“Kids,” a gritty look at a group of skateboarding, drug-abusing, bed-hopping teenagers, became an unlikely box office hit when it premiered in the summer of 1995.
Shot on a shoestring budget with a cast comprised of unknowns and amateur actors, the film’s subject matter and frank sexuality was scandalous, prompting condemnation in some quarters, as well as fights with the ratings board. “Kids'” NC-17 rating ultimately forced Bob and Harvey Weinstein, then at Miramax, to buy back the film from parent company Disney and create a one-off distribution shingle in order to release the movie in unrated form. It went on to gross an astounding $20.4 million, catapulted director Larry Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine up Hollywood’s ladder, and launched the careers of stars Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny.
But the film’s legacy is more complicated. Many of the young men and women that Clark tapped to play key roles struggled to find work after the film premiered, and grew frustrated that they’d been paid a pittance while the director and the Weinstein brothers scored major paydays. “The Kids,” a new documentary that’s premiering at the Tribeca Festival this week, grapples with the lives that were upended by the movie’s overnight success.
“My feelings about the movie started to shift after I saw it in the theater and saw the global reaction,” says Hamilton Harris, one of the non-professional actors who appeared in “Kids.” “It was extremely overwhelming and it brought the realization that I needed to do some work on myself.”
Harris felt that the film, which many audience members mistakenly believed was so steeped in reality that it was almost a documentary, played up the shock value, dwelling on the hardships faced by the skateboarders who came from unstable homes. At the same time, he felt that Clark and Korine failed to capture the strong sense of community that these teenagers had created and some of the more positive elements of their intense friendships.
“We were a tight-knit group who skateboarded and hung out,” says Harris. “We were in the right place at the right time and we become part of this cult classic film and had to deal with everything that comes with that. You can take a person out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of a person, and to me ghetto refers to the mental and emotional trauma we went through.”
Harris has been trying to get “The Kids” produced for more than a decade. At one point, he envisioned it as a narrative feature and started writing a screenplay. Then he decided that it would be better served as a documentary. Slowly, he began to realize that he needed to bring in a professional director. Through a mutual friend, he was put in touch with Eddie Martin, a documentarian whose works include “Have You Seen the Listers,” a look at Australian street artist Anthony Lister, and “All This Mayhem,” a deep dive into the world of professional skateboarding.
“I had conversations with other directors and it didn’t feel right,” says Harris. “I didn’t feel like I was going into something with people who were going to honor what I wanted to say. But when I met Eddie, I knew he would allow me to be at my most vulnerable and I can’t do that if I feel like I’m going to be taken advantage of or put down or used.”
Harris felt a responsibility to do justice to the story because two of his co-stars in “Kids,” Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter, died young after struggling to make sense of their newfound notoriety. Pierce was able to leverage his work in “Kids” into appearances in “Next Friday” and a guest stint on “Malcolm in the Middle,” but he died by suicide in 2000, hanging himself in a Las Vegas hotel room at the age of 25. Hunter turned to drugs and alcohol after failing to find acting work. In 2006, he was found dead from a cocaine overdose in his Lower East Side apartment. He was 31.
“There’s reasons why Harold did drugs and if that’s not understood then we can’t appreciate the fullness of who he was as a human being,” says Harris. “And Justin. He was in the ‘Friday’ movie. He was doing good. He was acting, but then he killed himself. What drives a person to do that? We need to understand.”
Martin thinks that the story of “Kids” should be a cautionary tale. A few people made a fortune, while the rest of the players were left to pick up the pieces. People like Pierce and Hunter didn’t have the support systems in place to help them navigate the Hollywood scene, he argues.
“It’s complex, especially when you’re approaching teenagers who really don’t have a lot of chances around them,” says Martin. “Do they take that opportunity? Many of them were runaways or people from traumatic backgrounds or troubled homes. They were very trusting of the filmmakers in a way and gave a lot. And then they didn’t have anyone around to help them or give them guidance while there was a narrow window of opportunity that opened for them.”
The filming of “Kids” didn’t sound like a professional experience. Underage actors were shot naked and drugs were readily available. In “The Kids,” the low-budget production sounds more like a bacchanal than a film set. Then, when the movie became a box office sensation, the cast found themselves locked out of any kind of profit participation. They also discovered they were being stereotyped as amoral street kids, which further complicated their feelings.
“Larry always says, ‘I tell the truth and the truth can be shocking,'” says Martin. “Well, my response to that is — whose truth? Is it the truth, and what are the costs of telling that truth to other people? It was marketed in a particular way that had an impact on those who were sold as particular characters. Twenty-six years have passed, so you can see the consequences of that.”
Neither Clark nor Korine agreed to participate in the making of “The Kids.” However, Martin says that someone is trying to thwart the documentary’s release. The filmmaker didn’t offer many specifics, but he said that there have been legal challenges to the documentary’s use of footage from the 1995 film.
“Someone has been trying to shut the film down from a legal angle,” says Martin. “They’re trying to stop it and we’re getting into fair use and the owning of material. They can’t stop these individuals from telling their side of the story, so they’re trying to do that by blocking the use of footage.”
For his part, Harris says he’s made his peace with Korine and Clark’s decision not to be interviewed for the documentary.
“I had to accept that wasn’t what they wanted,” says Harris. “I have no judgements about them. They’re having their own experiences. So be it.”
For Harris, now in his 40s, with kids of his own, making the documentary was akin to therapy.
“It was cathartic,” he says. “It helped me make peace with my experiences.”