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Richard Corliss/Cannes

What’s the matter with kids today? Just about everything, to judge from the rash of movies about young people that broke out at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. While most of the serious award contenders were meditations on 20th century history, like Theo Angelopoulos’ majestic Ulysses’ Gaze and Kamir Kusturica’s Underground (both set in war-torn Yugoslavia), the main trend was Sociopath Cinema. The parade of teen angst-athons was led by the U.S. film Kids.

The opening-night film was the French City of Lost Children, and this was the festival of lost children. You couldn’t swing a cat-or kick one, as the main character in Kids does-without hitting a movie about troubled teens in heat and on the rampage. Between frantically perfunctory bouts of sexmaking, the rich kids in the Spanish film Stories of the Kronen hang recklessly from a bridge over a busy highway. The teenage girls in the Thai film Daughters sniff glue as a break from their stealing and prostitution. In La Haine, denizens of the bleak projects outside Paris rip off Chinese grocers and face off in grudge matches with the police. For the drug-dealing Arab pre-teens in Bye-Bye, set in Marseilles, the only moral imperative is to stay alive. In another French drama, Le Plus Bel Age … (Those Were the Days), middle-class students indulge in sadistic occult rituals. The film’s gruesome hazing scene suggests a twist on the famous Groucho Marx line: I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me dismembered.

So the competition was thick even before Kids was screened. That director Larry Clark’s film still commanded the spotlight was a tribute to its American distributor, Miramax films, and its cunning boss, hype master Harvey Weinstein, who chose to see the film as a crusade for condom use. “Very few films have the ability to change the way people act,” he says. “Hopefully this one will shock parents into doing something to help their children.”

In essence, Kids is a chase movie about Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), a sexual specialist: he likes to make it only with virgins. Presumably, this heterosexual chicken hawk is thus spared from contracting any social disease. But Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), who has been only with Telly, tests HIV positive. Which means Telly also has problems. As Jennie tries to find him, she learns that he plans to exercise his deflower power on naive young Darcy (Yakira Peguero). Will Jennie find Telly in time, and if she does, will she care enough to prevent this toxic encounter?

This plot will be familiar to any Dracula fan. Telly is the vampire, pestilent and possessed; Darcy is Mina, his virginal victim-to-be; and Jennie is both Lucy, the walking dead with the fatal love bite, and Van Helsing, the fearless vampire killer. But well before Jennie embarks on her long night’s journey into daze, Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine have worked at numbing the viewer with scenes of anomic decay. It’s not the rough huff of the sex play with girls who look to be on the green side of puberty, though these trysts pack their own sick wallop. It’s the throwaway brutality (the kids beating up a black man in the park), the notion that the world is there to be spat at or pissed on. In one of the lighter moments, Telly’s pal Casper (Justin Pierce) dips a tampon in a red fruit drink, then sucks it dry. Still with us?

These little post-Lubitsch touches have Miramax concerned that Kids, scheduled to open July 21, may get an NC-17 rating, which would mean that officially most of the film’s young cast could not see it. The Walt Disney Co., Miramax’s corporate parent, will not release NC-17 films; so Weinstein, who paid a risky $3.5 million for the $1.5 million-budgeted film, is ready to set up a separate company to distribute Kids. There will be, he vows, no scissoring to get an R rating. As for Clark, he proclaims himself mystified by the clamor: “There’s very little nudity in the film. It’s just that no one wants to confront the fact that in 1995, kids are having sex.”

In Kids, kids have easy sex; they have potent drugs; they seem to have total freedom from parental discipline. What they don’t have is fun. Screwing around has become mandatory, and thus joyless, like house chores or homework. A truly radical, dangerous movie about teens would show the lure of the wild life while avoiding the twin tones of sensationalism and sentimentality. Clark’s film doesn’t do that. And that’s the matter with Kids, and the other teen films at Cannes.

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