With gritty 'Kids,' Hollywood's vision of youth has finally grown up Innocence Lost

September 02, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The line between Andy and Telly is as straight as the flight of a bullet, and its consequences are possibly as tragic.

Andy Hardy, who was played by Mickey Rooney over the course of 15 MGM movies between 1937 and 1944, was the son of a judge who lived in a big white house under the trees in a suburb that was a leafy-green dream of stability and decency in a world that itself was stable and decent. "Hey, kids," was his immortal signature line, "let's put on a show."

With his pal Judy Garland, he stood for everything we Americans could be proud of. Darn it, he was optimistic, entrepreneurial, respectful, ambitious and spunky. Lord, that boy had spunk! Befreckled under a thatch of strawberry blond hair, he was Huck and Tom, he was Peck's not-so-bad boy, he was apple-cheeked innocence and the spirit of can-do smelted down into one archetypal figure.

Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is from another part of the forest, and it's a different forest. He's the key figure in Larry Clark's "Kids," which arrived Friday leaking toxic vapors of melancholy. At 15, Telly roams New York City in quest of one thing: "busting virgins" (that is, taking their virginity). Why? That's his idea of safe sex.

Telly, virtually unsupervised by parents (the few he knows he treats with utter contempt), is one of the world's champion sexual con men. Unformed, callow, body-hairless, he looks like the kid who delivers the paper or the pizza, but he's got the nerve of a cat burglar and the narrow rat-brain of a hungry rodent. He loves to look his defenseless targets in the eye and tell them how sweet they are and how he cares about them and how he wants to be their boyfriend. When he succeeds in deflowering them, he slips out the back, Jack, high-fives it with a buddy who's waited outside, and the kids take off.

What Telly doesn't know -- though if he did, it's unclear whether or not he'd care or alter his behavior in any way -- is that he's HIV-positive. So he's a little death merchant. His signature line might be, "Hey, kids, let's put on a plague." What he's selling isn't the America of infinite possibility but the America of diminished horizons, the America without a future.

Imagine these two boys confronting each other across the gulf of years. What could they possibly say to each other?

Andy: Golly, gosharooties, you've actually (gulp!) had s-x? What would your dad say?

Telly: I don't have a dad.

Andy: No dad? Holy Cow!

Telly: And if I did, ---- him! And ---- you too!

Kids say the darndest things.

Does this signify the end of civilization, or simply a higher reality in storytelling about teen-agers? Interesting question, no answer, but I tend to favor the later interpretation.

Andy Hardy, much as we love him, is a lie. He's the way it's supposed to be. When we look at our own teen-agers, something in us wills us to yearn for their innocence and decency. Telly, damn his worthless, tender, stupid soul, is the truth. He's the bad news nobody wants to hear, the phone call in the middle of the night from a cop, the telegram that blows your life apart. He demands only one thing, and that is eminently practical: Deal with it.

Of course, the lie behind Andy can be somewhat forgiven when one realizes that the movies really pre-date the invention of teen-agers. They hail from the last years of the '30s and the first years of the '40s -- when it was unclear how much money could be made by identifying, in market terms, a particular unit of the population, and by pandering to it and guiding its tastes and wants.

It's apparent in looking at the Andy Hardy films that their makers envisioned no separate teen culture, no unique set of teen values or teen crises. Metaphorically, Mickey and Judy were tiny adults and their "society" was a distillation of adult society. It's no surprise that the field in which they chose to triumph, show biz, reflected the mentality of the film community rather than anything in the authentic America -- then in the grips of a Depression -- in which the movies were purportedly set.

The first real teen-age movies arrived in the early '50s and were synonymous with the outgrowth in two trends that society at large viewed with concern. They were juvenile delinquency and, of course, rock and roll. Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause" may not have been the first, but it was certainly the most powerful that defined teen culture as apart from grown-up society and at cross-purposes from it. Of course, its central emblem was the surly, beautiful James Dean, then redefining the American teen-age look for all time.

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