Glenn Lovell / Tribune News Service / August 1, 1995

They were gathered to decide if our kids needed protecting, and whether concerned parents should pin on special cop badges, designating them Guardians of Our Movie-Going Youth.

There were roughly 60 people at the afternoon screening of "Kids." Some were teen counselors. Some were Girl Scout leaders. A few were substance-abuse therapists and media reps. At least two were in their late teens.

They left the dark shaken and numbed. Those who could comment on the unusually explicit teen odyssey declared it "incredibly disturbing," "depressing," "sickening." Some needed time alone to sort out ambivalent feelings. At least one alcohol-and-substance-abuse counselor needed counseling himself. He looked in vain for "an informal discussion to defuse some of the anxiety I was feeling."

Pam Kelly of Camera Cinemas in San Jose, Calif. passed out a questionnaire before the screening. She said the theater chain needed "guidance itself" in deciding who would benefit most from the movie, which focuses on two young teens - Telly and Casper - during 24 hours of unsafe sex, petty larceny, gang violence and much bragging about it all. "We need feedback on how to approach teens with this movie," Kelly told the recruited audience.

Translation: Kids - saddled with an "NC-17" (no one admitted under 17) by the MPAA ratings board for "explicit sex, language, drug use and violence involving minors" - has been released unrated. This means it's up to individual theaters to decide on a cutoff age. Miramax Films' newly formed Shining Excalibur division has asked theaters to interpret "unrated" as "no one under 18 admitted without a parent or legal guardian." In industry parlance, this is called "a hard R."

Still, not wishing to appear cavalier or irresponsible, Camera Cinemas sought the input of those involved locally in teen counseling and other social services. Hence, the informal survey, which brought 32 responses.

The breakdown: 17 said, yes, mature teens could benefit from seeing "Kids," which is set in New York's Washington Square. Seven said, no, they would not benefit. The survey was more evenly split on the question: "Should 17 and under be permitted to see this film?" Yes (14). No (13). Yes, but with an adult (5).

Of the "no" responses, most believed the film "glorified" teen promiscuity and drug use and came off as an "unfair" indictment of all teens. Many were bothered by the film's negativity ("shows hopelessness of situation but offers no solutions"). Counselor Diep Luong feared "certain teen groups (boys) would cheer and think it's cool." At least one person accused filmmaker Larry Clark of buying into "the notion of teen invincibility."

"No redeeming value," wrote Dr. Steve Newton, director of Pacific Center (a child-and-adolescent behavioral service connected to Good Samaritan Hospital). "It certainly pushes my buttons as the father of a 15-year-old daughter."

"A piece of teen-age shock and exploitation," wrote Melanie Kimbel, who works with the Girl Scouts.

Carlos Ponce of Si Se Puede (a city-sponsored community service program) was equally harsh: "I think the film has nothing to offer. (It) condones this type of behavior. There is no real message." Ernie Tabasa, 23, also with Si Se Puede, disagreed. He called the film "groundbreaking - the raw truth! It's "in-your-face' material. Let's learn from it."

Larry Jakubecz of KSJS radio was more equivocal. "If it weren't for the AIDS/HIV angle," he wrote, "I would wonder what the point of the film is at all." Cary Reyes, a Santa Clara County therapist who treats teens with dependency problems, had a mixed reaction. She called the film "powerful ... no-holds-barred," but went on to criticize filmmaker Clark's misanthropic outlook. Her take on the film's message? "Don't be a teen-ager! Kids need to have a helluva lot of skills to get through adolescence unscathed."

Almost everyone agreed that teens - ranging in age from 13 to 19 - could benefit by seeing the film in "a controlled environment," i.e. a screening in conjunction with adult-led discussions on date rape, drug use, peer pressure, high-risk sexual behavior.

The San Jose Mercury News gave the survey participants a few days to mull over the year's most controversial film. In follow-up interviews, the group was just as split in its reaction. Some viewed Kids as irresponsible, exploitive, one-sided. Others called it an important tool to foster debate among teens, parents and counselors. Again, those with reservations stressed the importance of "a discussion format."

"We adults were all disturbed by the movie," pointed out Reyes of Pathway Society. "I can't imagine how a group of kids would react. If it's not shown in the right setting, I can see kids rooting for Telly every time he busts a virgin."

Newton, who initially hated the film, later acknowledged that "It does have some redeeming value, provided it's used in an educational-discussion setting with adults. We need to tell teens, "This is what happens out there. Stay away from it."' He was still concerned that the film glorifies drug use and promiscuity and casts "males in a very powerful position throughout."

This also bothered Terrie Lind, director of community services for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. She teaches "assertive communication" and how to withstand peer pressures. The girls depicted on-screen, she said, can't think for themselves, while the boys are "very predatory by nature." Kids, in Lind's opinion, should be off-limits to all age groups. "I don't think anyone needs to see it. It has no real educational or moral value." Jennifer Niklaus, a 26-year-old counseling intern for the YWCA, called the film "a wake-up call." Regarding the contested rating, she added: "I would have parents sign permission slips for their kids to see this movie."

Niklaus' chief beef: All the kids are portrayed as slackers and losers. "The teens I meet are really neat kids. They have potential, a lot of positive stuff. I didn't see any of that in this movie." Nor did Alan Sherer, director of a counseling agency that works with schools in Los Gatos and Santa Cruz. Though Sherer argues that "Kids" should be available to teens as young as 15, he cautions that it "focuses on one distinct subculture; it gave the impression that all kids are into drug-using, sexualized behavior. Also, it sends mixed messages: There are no consequences regarding the drugs and the girl (at a party) getting raped."

Reyes also saw this as a failing: "The teens (in the film) don't have redeeming qualities. They're selfish and narcissistic. They don't care about anything but themselves. I work with adolescent drug users and teen parents, and I can tell you this movie is not representative of all teen-agers." "The blame shouldn't be on kids," agreed Si Se Puede intern Tabasa. "Kids are pretty much the victims of a neglectful society." Tabasa, 23, favors an R rating, adding, "This is not porn or anything - it's an educational film."

Roberto Mena, 23, is a youth counselor with Si Se Puede as well as an aspiring film maker (enrolled in San Jose State University's film program). He called the film "amazing" cinematically, but potentially harmful if misinterpreted. In this respect, it shares something in common with Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society. "I know kids who know those films line-for-line," Mena said. "But they miss the message and concentrate on the violence."

The message certainly wasn't lost on Joe Pfeiffer, a 17-year-old senior at Del Mar High School. He was just as shocked by what he saw as were the adults. He also resented being stereotyped by the filmmaker: "It doesn't portray the good that comes out of teen-agers. It was all negative. It seemed like they glorified sex, drugs and stealing, and didn't show any of the consequences."

"To whom would he recommend Kids? "Certain friends mature ones," Pfeiffer replied. Camera Cinemas is going with the distributor's recommendation: They've imposed an "R" rating and, depending on how things go, may organize discussion sessions later in the run.

Excalibur CEO Eammon Bowles is glad to hear this. "We've never advocated that young teens see this film by themselves," he stressed. "But the NC-17 rating disempowers parents, who might want to take a sexually vulnerable child to this film. By going out unrated, we're leaving the door open. This could be a very valuable film to view in the proper context, with a parent or a person who works with teens."