At only 8-years-old Soleil Moon Frye picked up millions of fans and inspired countless other kids through her titular leading role in NBC sitcom “Punky Brewster.” She was starting to grow up around cameras, and when that show came to an end three and a half years later, while she continued to act, she also picked up an audio recorder and eventually a video camera to begin documenting everything from fun with her celebrity friends at theme parks to intimate conversations and musings on life. As the reality television genre began to take root in the industry, Frye’s recordings were kept just for her, “locked away” for more than two decades. But four years ago things changed.
Around that time, Frye tells Variety, she began to question if the way she remembered certain moments and events from her life really happened the WAY she remembered them. Most people in that situation might call up old friends and ask them how they remembered something happening, understanding that the answer might not be 100% true because each person’s perspective would color the recollection. And Frye did that, but she also, for the first time, really started to dig into her old documents, from audio and video tapes to diaries and photographs — items that could provide hard facts. In doing so, the first thing Frye thought about was how she was a part of the last generation to have privacy, and this became the genesis for her new documentary “Kid 90.”
“When I started this process I tried to make the documentary about everyone but me. The original idea was that it was going to be about this last decade of privacy, pre-internet and social media. Even when I was starting my interviews with my friends, the focus was not on me,” Frye says.
As the process went on, though, it “became me letting go of my own privacy, and the realization of how important each of our stories is,” she continues, noting that rediscovering the tapes was akin to opening “Pandora’s Box.”
The construction of the documentary follows Frye’s journey down an almost rabbit hole-esque trip down memory lane. There are some upbeat moments where she is partying with friends, including Leonardo DiCaprio; receiving exciting voicemails from Mark Wahlberg; experiencing young love (with House of Pain’s Danny Boy O’Connor’ and Charlie Sheen, for example) or traveling cross-country to settle into a new life in New York. But there are also increasingly more complicated and tragic moments, too. She showcases underage drinking and drug use, as well as painful personal moments from her team fearing for “Punky Brewster’s” image when she is heard saying, “Fuck,” to being post-op after her breast reduction surgery. She includes footage of some of her friends who were suffering and would lose their lives young, including Jonathan Brandis, Rodney Harvey, Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce. And she also does not shy away from what is still murky in her mind.
“I had multiple experiences that were really painful that I discovered through the tapes and the diaries. It’s still so fresh to me; I’m still so raw; I’m still making sense of it,” Frye says now.
At one point in the documentary, Frye plays audio of a conversation she had with a friend in which she asks if anything happened to her at an event because she didn’t drink but woke up on a doorstep. “I had a memory of being on the front porch and drinking ginger ale, but really what was in it? And at the time, we didn’t know what GHB was,” she says. “I really tried to be honest in what I found in the footage and the diary.”
Later on, she reads from an old diary about a sexual encounter that started off consensual, but when she changed her mind the guy did not comply immediately. Neither of the men in these instances are identified.
“I can only speak to my truth and my story, which is that it was about forgiving the little girl in me that felt shame or like I couldn’t share, or felt like I had to bury all of this away — not about the whos or whats,” she says.
Getting to the point where she felt ready to tell her story did not come overnight, though. Frye recalls working on the early days of the documentary and fielding questions from editor Neil Meiklejohn about when she was going to sit down for her own interview. Then, she would always tell him she wasn’t going to because, “This is not about me.”
“I had incredible people around me that really saw in me that I didn’t see in myself,” she continues. “Belisa [Balaban, vice president, original documentaries] at Hulu would continually bring up, ‘What is the glue that hold this together, what started this, what is the question?’ She was always asking questions and she was so incredible in her persistence of pushing me on that road of discovery.”
Frye continued to focus on interviewing her friends and fellow performers, including Mark-Paul Gosselaar, David Arquette and Brian Austin Green, as well as her ex-boyfriend O’Connor — all people who she says “trusted in me as an artist” to be “authentically themselves” and “honest in their truth” on-camera, as well as to not complain about the footage of their younger years that she included. (While not everyone featured in the archival footage is still here to give Frye their blessing, she shares that Brandis’ parents explicitly did support the documentary.)
One night in the editing bay with consulting editor Dava Whisenant, Frye finally broke down, she recalls. After going through so much raw material from her younger years, she just turned to Whisenant and said, “I want you to ask me whatever you want and let’s sit down. You’ve seen enough of the footage here to see what’s happening.'”
Once Frye decided to put herself in the story, “Kid 90” transformed from just being a one-of-a-kind time capsule. It was always going to be a project quite literally told through her lens, since she shot the hundreds of hours of archival footage, but now it included her reflection on the events within the project itself. Sometimes her memories were validated, but sometimes they were not.
“It was a really painful process and yet the most cathartic, beautiful experience of my life,” she says. “When I look back at the footage, certainly it was something I had to process where I realized I was losing these friends who were so incredible and had so much love inside of them and were certainly reaching out and I didn’t see it in that way.”
“When I was looking at the Danny footage, the way I remembered it was that I was so in love with him and was having this amazing time,” she continues. “I’m sitting in the edit bay and I’ve watched the footage 179 times, and it was as if that 180th time of watching the footage the blinders completely came off and I realized that this love was completely mutual, we were crazy about each other, everything he said was true, everything I said was true, and we both felt it. It just took 180 times of watching the same moment for me to digest it in a deeper way, and I think that’s a really fascinating thing around memory and our history and what do we not see? And it was in that moment that I thought, ‘Well if I’ve been looking through the world through this one perspective, what else have I missed all around me?'”
Once she decided to add her story to the project, Frye leaned on her support system even more but feels like, ultimately, the process helped her “find my voice” and “encouraged me to want to continue being of service to others.” (Frye is currently doing so by working with CORE Response, which, by her count, thus far has conducted 4.8 million COVID-19 tests across the country and administered more than 340,000 vaccinations.)
“I really believe that the younger kids are encouraged to discover their passion to be of service to others, the more I think they listen and it all comes full spiral. When you grow up being in service to others, then I think you’re able to listen in a deeper, more meaningful way to the world around you and not just your internal world,” she says.
“Kid 90” is streaming now on Hulu.