Any film enthusiast with a nose for the depraved and controversial will have surely encountered Larry Clark's teen drama 'Kids'. A sweat-stained tapestry of drugs, skateboarding and STDs in New York, 'Kids' debuted in 1995 to a justifiably disturbed audience yet managed to make back its US$1.5 million budget twentyfold at the box office, and has since been deemed a cult favourite. In fact, many viewers thought the film was a documentary, the line between reality and fiction blurred even further by the fact that many of the cast members were scouted on the streets. 'We Were Once Kids', a new documentary by Australian filmmaker Eddie Martin ('All This Mayhem') aims to add a new dimension to the film's legacy by exploring what it was like to have been one of the titular 'Kids' – and to have seen their lives represented so inaccurately onscreen.
Helmed primarily by Hamilton Harris, who was cast in 'Kids' as a semi-fictionalised version of himself, 'We Were Once Kids' plays like an oral history of the making of 'Kids' from its surviving cast, who explore the chaos its production left in their lives. Hamilton, along with his friends and eventual co-stars Harold Hunter ('Save the Last Dance') and Justin Pierce ('Next Friday'), belonged to a parentless, penniless group of skateboarding teens growing up in New York's drug-infested Housing Projects. Barely getting by on shoplifting from the supermarket and crashing wherever they could, the future for this chosen family looked dim until Clark and a then 18-year-old Harmony Korine ('The Beach Bum'), who Clark had tapped to write a script on New York's teen skateboarding culture, infiltrated their circle. In their own words, the teens were wary of Clark but went along due to Hunter's friendship with both Clark and Korine. Eventually, all were lured into starring in the film – and all were plied with drugs and alcohol on set, to the point where the children would pass out during filming. When the film became an unexpected success, the cast thought their chance to start a better life had finally arrived. However, it wasn't long before they realised that the 'Kids' train had been designed to take advantage of this marginalised group, its crew unwilling to extend support when the stars were branded by the media as miscreants no better than their on-screen personas. What was true was the rough circumstances from which the teens came; what 'Kids' got horribly, unnecessarily wrong, however, was how fast and loose the teens played with the sexual health of themselves and others.
From a filmmaking standpoint, there's nothing at all special going on here, nor does there need to be. Save for some cutting over interview dialogue with archive footage, the documentary is narrator-free, existing only in the apartments of the surviving cast members and footage of their lives from the 90s. Notably, Larry Clark and Harmony Korine declined offers to be involved in the documentary, although after seeing footage of conversations between the young cast with the then 52-year-old Clark, it's not hard to see why. One of the most damning and rage-inducing moments in the documentary comes in the form of archive footage from the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, where 'Kids' was nominated for the Palme d'Or. During a press conference, Clark is pressed by multiple reporters about the ages of his cast members who shot the film's most sexually explicit scenes. He is visibly frustrated at the line of questioning, not taking his sunglasses off and unable to give a straight answer. In saying nothing, Clark confirms the ethically-wobbly culture of his sets – especially regarding the depiction of underage sexual activity – a controversy that has followed him throughout his whole career.
During a press conference, Clark is pressed by multiple reporters about the ages of his cast members who shot the film's most sexually explicit scenes. He is visibly frustrated at the line of questioning, not taking his sunglasses off and unable to give a straight answer.
Furthermore, the square blame the documentary puts on 'Kids' for the deaths of Pierce, who died by suicide in 2000, and of Hunter, who died from a cocaine overdose in 2006, feels in just as poor a taste as Clark's filmmaking practices. While some of Pierce and Hunter's friends may think that the film did in fact kill them (no matter how plausible the film's contribution to their downfall was), broadcasting such one-dimensional opinions on tragedies we will never know the true answer to feels incredibly dangerous. It's an incredibly unhelpful way to flatten the discussion around mental health, poverty and fame. Pointing the finger at Clark and Korine for financial manipulation and a lack of compassion feels extremely warranted; blaming them for these deaths does not.
Held together by a treasure trove of archival footage and Harris' natural flair for dynamic storytelling, 'We Were Once Kids' is a conventional yet confronting look at the dark underbelly of an already heavily-contested piece of modern art. There are documentaries aplenty about many young people being chewed up and spit out of the Hollywood machine, but what makes 'We Were Once Kids' so harrowing is the innocence that was exploited for such shallow gain.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.