20 Years After Its Release, I’m Still Afraid to Watch 'Kids'
The first time I saw Kids -- Harmony Korine’s gruesome lo-fi examination of '90s-NYC youth culture that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this month -- was on a Sunday night during my senior year of college. Graduation was in a few short months, and afterward, I was determined to move to New York. I wanted to write, and as far as I knew, NYC was the only place in the entire world with a media workforce. Plus, having grown up in New Jersey, with Gotham's glittering skyline just 40 miles down the road, any other city would've been a provincial disappointment. Anyway, I watched Kids in my apartment with friends. When it was over, they left. I laid on a futon in the darkness for hours, unable to move. A single thought scrolled through my brain over & over.
I can't go. I cannot move to New York. I can't.
When you’re depressed, you think about laying down a lot. Constantly, actually. Get close to a couch, and every part of your brain is suddenly convinced that everything would be better if you’d just sprawl out. Go ahead, it will say. Just a few minutes. You’ll feel so much better. Of course, you won’t. You’ll lay there staring off into the middle of nothing, trying to get back up but physically lacking the ability to do so. Hours may pass. Eventually, you’ll have to go somewhere -- a job interview, say, or even just the bathroom -- and you’ll summon the courage to break this sorcerous paralysis and get up.
To be fair, Kids was hardly the only thing that floored me back then. Before I understood my depression, any little thing could. A weird text message, a disappointing grade, a rainy day, sometimes even a sunny day: pretty much anything threw me into a silent emotional tailspin that I couldn’t comprehend, much less articulate to my peers. But the Kids ground-out was particularly severe at a time when my carefree collegiate existence -- in many ways, an extension of childhood -- was winding down. The havoc it wrought on my perception of NYC nearly convinced me not to move there at all.
If you haven’t seen the movie, this probably seems like an exaggeration. (Also, beware of spoilers below. Also-also: you’ve had two decades.) If you have, it probably seems like a hacky grab at a think-piece news peg. It’s a little of both, I guess. Despite the experience, I ended up moving to the city after all, and I love-hate it here the way many transplants do. But Kids threw me into such a slough of despond that I haven’t rewatched it since. I doubt I ever will.
“NYC is hard, but it makes you stronger." That’s not the moral of the story.
The movie follows Telly (actor Leo Fitzpatrick, who fans of The Wire know as Bubbles’ junkie friend Johnny Weeks) and his merry band of miscreants through an early Giuliani-era city, where they drink malt liquor, smoke weed, and have unprotected sex with each other. Chloë Sevigny is Jenny, the lead female role, a version of which she’s basically been living ever since. Rosario Dawson is in there too, and the late Harold Hunter, a real New York “street kid” whose untimely cocaine overdose has been cultishly lionized. Supreme, another grisly ’90s NYC skate-scene vanguard with which the film is releasing a commemorative clothing collaboration, has been instrumental in that effort.
The last line of the movie is spoken by Casper, Telly’s bowl-cut companion. He’s just raped a drugged-up, passed-out Jenny, who contracted HIV at the beginning of the movie from Telly. The viewers know that he's probably just contracted the virus, but Casper doesn’t, which make Kids’ final words land even harder: “Jesus Christ, what happened?”
Korine’s director, Larry Clark, famously said they were trying, with Kids, to “make the Great American Teenage Movie, like the Great American Novel.” They succeeded, in the sense that the film’s absent moral arc leaves it open to infinite interpretation. Whether that was by design or not (plenty of people think Korine is a hack; his 2013 Spring Breakers, an updated nod to Kids, was as polarizing as the film that put him on the map), it’s the film’s legacy. You get out of Kids what you put in. It’s your anxiety, your disgust, your perverse excitement that gives the movie its lasting strength.
So! For me, a 21-year-old with an undiagnosed clinical depression who had, until 90 minutes earlier, been absolutely intent on moving to NYC, the experience was sorta like drowning in a pool while my friends & family sat on the edge, obliviously sipping lemonade. In a life of relative privilege & comfort, it was undoubtedly my scariest moment at the time.
For hours, I wrestled with the fact that I’d have to give up on my plans before I even began. I had a job offer in Denver (not writing), and even though I had no interest -- in the job, or in Colorado generally -- I was crushed with the overwhelming sense that I had to take it. New York was no option. It's not what I thought it was. My dream of moving to the city, writing, becoming Relevant and Famous and Not-Boring... the movie took a brick to all that. That only made the despair seem more decisive. I cannot move to New York. I can't. I was stuck on the futon, and my own projections on Kids put me there.
I live in NYC now. I have for the past five years. I eventually pulled myself together that night (or maybe it took me a few days, or weeks), and decided Denver was a horrible place full of weird weather and too-happy people. I got over it, and once I did, NYC's gravitational pull got ahold of me once more. I faced my fears! But this isn’t about overcoming adversity. "Like Kids, New York City is hard on you, but they both make you stronger.” No. That’s not the moral of the story. Like Kids, there is no moral of this story. There are just two personal truths.
First, I remain utterly terrified of returning to that place on the futon. Though it's far from the only trigger that put me there, Kids is one of the most memorable. Irrationally, that's the one I've chosen to avoid at all costs. This probably isn’t terribly healthy. (Contemporary wisdom advises "exposure" to your emotional albatrosses, to keep them manageable instead of allowing them to grow.) Then again, everyone has weaknesses, and this is one of mine.
Second, I was wrong to trust my childhood vision of the city, but I was also wrong to assume Korine's was any more real. The NYC of Kids isn’t real. Maybe it was at one point; maybe it was all a myth invented to sell the world another Zoo York T-shirt. More likely, it was somewhere in between. “Only ‘90s New Yorkers Will Remember...,” or something. No matter how much I hate it sometimes, today’s real-life NYC is full of soaring beauty and incredible people.
Depression, on the other hand, is real, and we don’t talk about it enough. So if you’re like me, and find yourself desperate to crumple onto the nearest couch at all hours of the day, don’t keep it to yourself. Don’t be ashamed. Seek help.
Also, I’d skip watching Kids. That’s up to you, though.