The unspoken allure for documentaries as a medium is the promise that you’ll see raw, honest footage from real life that could never be captured in narrative filmmaking. No matter how well a doc is fortified by talking-head interviews, firmly contextualized historical research, or a strong editorial POV, its main selling point to most audiences is going to be the carnival-barker promise of never-before-seen wonders you won’t find elsewhere in cinema. I was thinking a lot about that tension between raw archival footage & carefully curated supplementary material during Soleil Moon Frye’s self-portrait documentary Kid90. A reflection on her post-Punky Brewster years as a party-hard teenager with a constantly running camcorder among other Famous 90s Kids, Kid90 is a vintage backstage tour of teenage celebrity you’re likely to never see with such raw, intimate candor again. Its modern talking-head interviews & narration often cheapen the impact of those video diary clips, but the camcorder footage is such a powerful clash of pop culture nostalgia & miserable decadence that it doesn’t matter much. Kid90 delivers on the promise of unveiling raw, honest footage of its subjects that you’d never see in their carefully curated public appearances, but we’re at the mercy of how Frye chooses to contextualize (or withhold) that footage as the director/narrator. We only get a peek into the window, but it’s a privilege to be invited into her world at all.
It makes sense that a former child celebrity would be protective of the private footage she has of herself and her friends (both alive and dead) struggling with the early-onset-adulthood of growing up in the entertainment industry. I don’t know every Teen Beat star of her time by name, so I spent a lot of the movie asking questions like “Is that the guy who played Zach Morris?” as I failed to recognize some of her peers in their adult form. There are some incredibly intimate glimpses of celebrities like David Arquette, Corey Feldman, and Leonardo DiCaprio in her camcorder diary footage, though, and seeing them act like actual teenagers instead of PR-polished entertainers is outright jarring. Frye herself was lost in the 1990s, often cast as a teenage sex symbol after growing out of her sassy cutie-pie phase, to the point where name-calling taunts of “Punky Boobster” drove her to de-sexualize her body with a very public breast reduction surgery. She fully understands the value of her video diaries of that pre-internet era, when celebrities young & old were much less conscious of their candid, off-stage footage leaking out into the world at large. In one brief montage, clips of Famous 90s Kids like Stephen Dorff & Jenny Lewis drinking & getting high are intercut with their PSA participation in the “Just Say No” campaigns of the Reagan Era, which feels like a glimpse of what this film might’ve been at feature length if the footage had fallen out of Frye’s hands. Instead, she’s careful what information to disclose and when, and you always feel as if there’s even more sensational footage on these tapes that we’ll never be allowed to see.
I’m glad that Kid90 is 100% the story Soleil Moon Frye wanted to tell, how she wanted to tell it. So much of her private life was already in the public eye from such a young age that it’s surprising she’d offer even more of herself & her inner circle for wide consumption like this, instead of defensively locking it away. The only letdown is how much of the film is comprised of modern-day footage of her famous friends all-growed-up, when those interviews cannot compete with the potency & enormity of what she captured on her camcorder as a teenager. There are already much braver, more vulnerable versions of this kind of self-reflective filmmaking to be found in titles like Stories We Tell, Shirkers, and You Cannot Kill David Arquette. Frye is more than candid enough about the abuse & heartache she suffered as a kid for us to understand why this project is a cathartic, therapeutic experience for her, and it would be unfair to ask for more than what she already shares. The problem is that when we’re submerged in the vintage VHS nostalgia and cursed found-footage horror of her teenage video diaries, there’s just no denying that we’re watching something truly special & raw that you could not find anywhere else. Being pulled out of that footage for a modern-day check-in is a constant disappointment, but I feel privileged to have seen even a minute of her home video footage in the first place. I need to let go of the nagging thought that there’s even more of it that’s just outside my reach.