Think of Telly as the Andy Hardy from hell. He's as cute as Andy was and just as enterprising. He's got that American can-do ethic, all right, and when he sets his mind on a goal, darn it, he sticks around to follow through.
Slight difference: His main goal is "busting virgins" -- that is, taking their virginity. Other goals include having fun, getting wasted, raising hell, stealing what can be stolen without much hassle.
Oh, and he's HIV-positive.
And, finally, he's 15.
Telly, played unaffectedly by a nonprofessional actor named Leo Fitzpatrick, is the centerpiece of photographer Larry Clark's film "Kids," which opens today. Frankly, I'm not sure if it's a good film or a bad film; it may be beyond judgments such as that. But if one measure of a work of art is its capacity to disturb, then "Kids" is high art indeed. It knocked me flat, sat on my chest and spat in my face for a couple of hours.
The film is constructed primitively, around a crude thriller device, which enables director-anthropologist Clark to X-ray a tribal society. Think of it as "Coming of Age in New York City," although nobody does really come of age here. They just stay stupid and happy on the road to oblivion.
As the film opens, the first revolting image it offers is scrawny, hairless, callow Telly French-kissing a girl his own age. They are both in underwear. You see more than you want to: tongues gnashing and throbbing and inflating mouths, the abundance of saliva, the piggy-like groanings. Some places a camera should never go; almost drove this old boy from the theater.
Telly, one of the world's great sexual con men, is cajoling a girl out of her virginity. He knows she'll always remember him, and that appeals to his young heart, which is as unformed as his callow face and hairless body and wisdomless brain. And when all the lies are done, the act is complete, he's out the back, Jack, where his pal Casper (Justin Pierce) awaits him. They high five and take off. Got another one, he proclaims.
But across town, another young woman is getting some bad news. This is Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), who has a shattering moment (among many) in the public health service when she learns she's HIV-positive. Since she's only had sex once, with Telly . . . well, you get the picture.
The movie takes the classical suspense form of the double pursuit. Chloe, for reasons she doesn't quite understand, has to tell Telly. Meanwhile, Telly has set his sights on a new quarry, pretty young Darcy (Yakira Peguero). And poor Casper is quietly hating himself because he can't get sex the way the cold-blooded Telly does. He's looking for an opportunity to score, regardless of the consequences.
So you have two infected teen-agers pursuing two uninfected teen-agers, with different agenda: One to save and the other to conquer. Who gets saved? Or who is damned? Does it matter? The drama is so low key, because the stakes are so very high.
The game plays out on the sidewalks of New York, which, for the skateboard generation, are really just a big set of ramps and jumps. In fact, the aesthetician in Clark is drawn to the skateboarding. He seems to see it as a metaphor for their blighted lives, as they hurl through traffic and up and down stairways, giddy with the sheer pleasure of their own animalism; utterly oblivious -- indeed, unable to imagine -- consequences.
The movie is unrated. Is it pornographic? The answer, in my judgment, is no, because the kids aren't sexualized in any way. They aren't prettied up and the formal vocabulary of the erotic cinema is nowhere in sight. Instead, the film has the raw daylight feel of the banality of everyday life. And that's what's so scary about it.
Starring Leo Fitzpatrick and Chloe Sevigny
Directed by Larry Clark
Released by Shining Excalibur
Unrated (sexuality, profanity); under 18 not admitted without legal guardian