Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids wasn’t a big hit in its day, but it’s managed to stick around and get passed down from one generation of teen punk to the next over the course of the last two decades. Teenagers don’t tend to acknowledge anything that came out more than a few years before they got into high school, but they can still quote Kids, and that has to largely be thanks to Harmony Korine’s screenplay. The content of Kids sticks with people, because not only is it a shocking reminder to parents about how trashy teenage party culture gets, but it also blows kids’ hair back by reflecting the people they know in an honest way that few things in the media do, and it takes those glimmers of recognition and amps them up to maximum degradation in order to give the more impressionable members of the audience something to aspire to. Youth culture moves fast, but almost twenty years after its release, kids can still watch Kids and be shocked at how sick it is – and that’s why you can still periodically hear them quoting that they want to buy ladies corn dogs, when most of them probably aren’t even aware that Hollywood actor Justin Timberlake used to be in a band called ‘N Sync.
Less people remember Korine’s debut as a director, Gummo, and that’s kind of a shame, because not only is it quite a bit more shocking than Kids, it’s also far more interesting and experimental in its crafting, and it’s just as revealing when it comes to exposing audiences to a segment of the population that they were probably better off not knowing exists. The difference is that, while Kids is set in an urban environment and it illuminates sexually promiscuous behavior that young audiences tend to find glamorous, Gummo is set in the dregs of rural hillbillydom, and it shines a light on a lower class, more despicable kind of deviance. The sexual content here goes far past even the lows of the casual rape of Kids and addresses incest and molestation. Ick. A movie about white trash kids from Ohio living in squalor isn’t nearly as glamorous as one about kids running around New York City doing drugs and having casual sex, but I kind of wish it was, because it would be so much funnier to hear kids quoting lines from Gummo when they start shooting their mouths off around adults.
What do they have in common?
Much like Korine’s latest film, Spring Breakers, whose current wide release this article is written in tribute to, Kids and Gummo are both stories about a misguided group of young people who behave in ways that shock and appall. The characters in these films are uneducated, tranquilized by substance abuse, and lacking any positive influences that might provide them with a road map to bettering themselves. Kids and Gummo are shocking and exploitive, to the point where a lot of people turn them off instantly and deem them as being without merit. Also, they both feature way too many scenes where gangly young boys lounge around with their shirts off. For the love of all that’s holy, cover yourselves.
Why is Kids overrated?
The first time you watch Kids, it’s pretty shocking, and that’s probably why teenagers still like to show it off to each other. After you’ve already tasted what it has to offer, however, it can become something of a bore. The characters here are so excessively immature and their dialogue so aggressively stupid that it starts to get on your nerves. The immaturity and stupidity is largely the point, of course, but after you’ve gotten the point, you start to want to be entertained, and watching Kids often feels like time spent hanging out with fifteen-year-olds, because it essentially is just ninety-five minutes of documentary-looking footage of fifteen-year-olds hanging out. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of very many things less entertaining than listening to immature posturing about fake sexual prowess for ninety-five minutes straight.
After a while you just check out, and checking out is exactly what Kids doesn’t want you to do, because it has some fairly important things to say in its third act – stuff about sexually transmitted diseases, rape culture, and the like. It’s hard to convey any lessons to people when you’re boring them though, and it’s even harder to get an audience to take you seriously when one moment you’re begin completely exploitive and the next you’re trying to be serious. Kids tries to straddle the line between traditional drama and shocking stunt, and it never quite finds the right balance. There’s an authenticity in how it casts actual young actors as its teenage characters instead of trying to pass off twenty-somethings like most films do, but the reliance on amateur actors also means that there’s a lot of amateur acting that takes you out of the moment. It’s difficult to become invested in a young girl’s struggle with HIV when the actors she’s trading dialogue with keep looking directly into the camera.
The amateur acting is a minor problem that could have been overlooked if it came paired with a more focused script, however. The larger problem is that you can’t take a movie that makes so many immature attempts at shocking you seriously once it starts to portray itself as containing wisdom. The scene where the Casper character (Justin Pierce) sucks cherry Kool-Aid out of a tampon feels really desperate. The scene where he and his friends beat a guy’s head in because they bumped into each other is too over the top. Then there’s the scene where the film’s defacto protagonist, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), takes a nice girl’s virginity and plays rougher with her than necessary. It’s not enough that we have to watch him worm his way into her pants, we also have to watch him ignore her tears and pleading as he hurts her. For what? The bad things that happen in this movie could have been even more powerful if they were presented with a little restraint or the characters appeared to be even slightly conflicted about their actions, but instead Korine and Clark turn up the shock to 11, and they turn everything into a sideshow. If they were so concerned with being shocking, they should have just gone all the way and made a snuff film.
Why is Gummo underpraised?
Gummo is a towering achievement largely because it is that metaphorical snuff film. Of all the things this movie could be called, boring isn’t one of them. Its characters aren’t despicable but typical street kids like the punks from Kids, they’re completely unique and precious snowflakes who will burn themselves into your memory. The dialogue here isn’t just bottom-feeding gutter talk that eventually becomes white noise, it’s absurdist nonsense that’s so off-the-wall and so wildly entertaining, you’ll have to rewind the movie several times just to make sure you heard it right. Sometimes things get described as being too strange to not be true, and that’s exactly the sort of vibe Gummo has going for it. Just look at the crap-packed, filthy houses that much of the movie takes place in. They’re horrifying, and they hit home because you know they aren’t sets that anyone could have created, they’re real places Korine found to shoot in. Hoarders has proven to us that these people exist, but Gummo knew it back in 1997.
It’s not just that insight into white trash that makes this movie disturbing either, it’s the fact that it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to celebrating the worst of white trash. There are no lessons to be learned here, no dramatic arc. Gummo fully commits to going in one direction, and that direction is making you feel as uncomfortable as possible. When the amateur actors look directly into the camera, it doesn’t ruin the illusion, because there was never any illusion to begin with. Gummo liberally mixes footage of real people in with its staged stuff, so when one of them breaks character and looks into your eyes, it serves as a skin-crawling reminder that what you’re watching isn’t make believe.
Somehow, while pushing the inclusion of amateur actors even further than Kids, Gummo manages to have better acting as well. If there was one big revelation that came out of Kids, it was Chloë Sevigny’s performance, so Gummo brings her back for another go-around. The big revelation here, however, is Nick Sutton and Jacob Reynolds as the film’s cat-killing protagonists. Not only do these kids have interesting faces, they’re also completely authentic and raw in their roles, so watching their disturbing day-to-day existences affects you on a deeper, grosser level than most stuff can. You can’t watch Sutton run through an old vaudeville routine to a Down syndrome prostitute’s pimp brother without it giving you nightmares. It’s impossible to watch Reynolds eat spaghetti while getting his hair shampooed in a dirty bathtub and not have it turn your stomach. I don’t know what “it” is, but these guys have it.
Evening the odds.
Nobody would ever accuse Gummo of being subtle. Quite the contrary, it’s a loud, screaming, temper tantrum of a movie. But it also has little ways of getting under your skin that are hard to explain. It would seem like the scene where a bunch of kids beat a man nearly to death over an imagined slight in Kids would be far more disturbing than the scene in Gummo where a bunch of hillbillies get drunk in a kitchen and take their aggressions out on a chair, but that’s just not the case. The scene in Kids is harrowing stuff, designed to get a reaction out of you at a critical dramatic moment, but the scene in Gummo is so much creepier because you get the sense that it’s what these people would have been doing that night anyway, even if there weren’t cameras around. What sort of weirdos strip their shirts off and have fake wrestling matches with inanimate objects in front of other people? The sort of weirdos who are worth watching. If all the teenagers I saw disgustedly walking out of Spring Breakers this weekend could just get a glimpse of that kitchen chair scene, then they’d really have something to complain about. Just imagine how much fun it would be to watch their horrified reactions…