There's two small pieces of this film that contain the whole truth about this "true-life" story. Noticing them will definitely enlighten you on the position director Larry Clark is taking vis-a-vis his subjects and subject matter:
1) The Bijou Phillips crotch shot. Nearly every review seems to mention this one shot (most of them just say "You'll know the shot when you see it") as an indication that Mr. Clark may be a mite too enthralled with his teen subjects. Yet most of them choose to ignore this and rave about the film anyway. Why? Isn't this totally gratutitous extreme-close-up concrete proof that Clark is at best ethically dubious and at worst an out-and-out pervert in moralist's clothing? I wouldn't trust him around my kids. His filmmaking sensibilities aren't too far removed from those of Clive McLean's. Does that mean that, in the near future, Roger Ebert is gonna view Barely Legal #11
and proclaim it a masterpiece?
2) The post-credit admission that, more or less, states "While this is ostensibly based on a true story, the fact is we made most of this shit up. And the three main characters got their sentences reduced, but we didn't feel that was important enough to mention while there still might be people in the audience." Which means that Clark and the screenwriters are less interested in illuminating causes of teen violence than they are in good ol' fashioned titilating sex-and-violence entertainment leavened with a dose of "ain't-these-kids-dumb?" condescension.
So is there any reason that this dishonest, morally disgusting porn-a-thon has garnered such raves? Well, there are a couple of stretches that do work -- most noticeably the central murder, which is (to be honest) one of the most powerful and nerve-wracking scenes of the year. There's some good performances that make this slightly compelling despite itself. (Special thank-yous go out to Phillips, Nick Stahl and especially Brad Renfro.) And I can say with certainty that this is the best film Clark's ever made and that his background as a photographer means that almost by default he's gonna produce some nice tableaus. It's rather satisfying to see him revisit Kids
territory without the cheap shock-mongering that has so far been Harmony Korine's specialty. He still has that goddamn patronizing attitude, though -- not a frame of film went by where I felt that Clark had any sympathy for the kids in front of his camera. (The screenwriters -- who don't even deserve the small favor of having their names mentioned -- get their share of the blame for this, too.) Having praised the performances, I have to say that I feel sorry for all involved (ESPECIALLY Renfro), who should have something to show after acting their little hearts out besides this pap. It could have been worse for them, though: They could have signed on for Clark's sickening Teenage Caveman