Kid 90, the documentary directed and produced by former/current Punky Brewster star Soleil Moon Frye, explores the complications of celebrity and personal memory. Frye attempts this by blending her own home videos, saved audio recordings and diary entries from the ‘90s with contemporary interviews featuring fellow former teen stars. There’s a telling moment when Saved by the Bell’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar reflects upon the luxury of being young, spontaneous, fully present at a party (even in the presence of Frye’s omnipresent video camera) and absolutely indifferent towards the sight of a camera flash. Gosselaar attests that stardom, then as now, is riddled with the unease of notoriety and voyeurism, but that one of the perks of pre-internet fame was the freedom provided by the genuine ephemerality of a private life. His meditations on stardom encapsulate a central complexity that Kid 90 strains for but never quite reaches during its 70-minute runtime: These actors were just kids whose fame both intensified and divorced them from feelings of true freedom.
Kid 90 is, paradoxically, still a product of the celebrity culture it examines. The film doesn’t lean all the way into clichéd “celebrities are just like us” territory, but it certainly wants us to remove the barely-there gossamer curtain of fame when witnessing the kiddish home video experiences of Kevin Connolly, Leonardo DiCaprio and Frye at an amusement park. It encourages compassion for people who were complexly forced to mature due to the constant rejection and hypervisibility of the entertainment world, understanding how infantilizing it can be to be socially relegated as a has-been, a “former child star” when only on the brink of adulthood. This is textually communicated through the interviews Frye moderates with childhood friends—like Gosselaar, David Arquette, Stephen Dorff, Jenny Lewis and Brian Austin Green—whose present-day musings help contextualize the grainy home videos that dominate the film.
The film’s rhythm of home video, interview snippet, home video, interview snippet quickly familiarizes the audience with memories of the past while characterizing the film as more like digging up a time capsule than merely reliving the glory days. However, Kid 90 still suffers from some sequencing problems. The film ricochets between Frye’s individual experience and that of her peers, undulating through sharp and shifty emotional overtures that leave the film feeling unorganized. It is difficult to tell if the tinge of scatteredness is supposed to simulate the messiness of memory, or if Frye struggled to draw a throughline other than that of her own personal experience.
Her specific challenges of famous youth, at least, are on full display, exemplified by Frye’s recounting of her highly publicized breast reduction surgery—an operation she chose to undergo after living with gigantomastia throughout her teens. Her large breasts matured her in the gaze of Hollywood and her peers, who crassly gave her the epithet “Punky Boobster,” but by the time she was actually a woman, she struggled to evade the shadow of her young roles. These experiences demonstrate the ways in which the hypervisibility of celebrity further complicates the general awkwardness of growing up. Understanding when childhood formally ends isn’t just a formative part of maturation, it’s a career question—a brand-based balancing act, an existential threat for people who strive to participate in artistic fields which render them time-sensitive, public commodities.
Kid 90 communicates this complex experience through a mixture of Frye’s tween talk show appearances, clips from her guest-star roles (in which her characters’ arcs were about developing bodies) and home video around the time of the surgery. The combination of personal video and paid appearances reinforce the film’s meditations on how challenging it is to blossom into a fully realized person when some of the evidence of your becoming is captured as entertainment for spectators. Frye’s directorial choices are strongest when delivering these personal memories.
In fact, the movie always goes down easiest when Frye focuses upon the process of revisiting this era in her life while making the film. She reflects on her relationships with fellow actors and artists like Jonathan Brandis, Sean Caracena, Justin Pierce, all of whom died by suicide. In hindsight, they all made legible cries for help in Frye’s videos or phone messages. “I don’t think I’ve been living a lie, but I certainly haven’t been fucking listening,” Frye says in a striking moment of transparency. What’s so moving about these sorts of revelations is the palpable remorse that translates through Frye’s contemporary reflections. These more difficult emotions land with greater impact than Frye’s general musings about how much she enjoyed meeting the president in her Punky Brewster days, because they are so much more unsettling and specific.
Frye sometimes has her peers watch old footage of themselves, having them confront the simultaneous distance and feelings of proximity to their pasts. Sometimes people are just plain embarrassed: Green talks at one point about the pains of his failed hip-hop career and being deemed the poor man’s Vanilla Ice. Those expressed moments of pubescent confusion or adult remorse are where Kid 90 feels most human. I still haven’t deciphered if that’s a testament to Frye’s filmmaking ability or if it simply exemplifies how much celebrity culture (especially now) makes human expressions of angst and regret feel rarified when they come from people who happen to perform for a living.
Yet, Frye’s choice to facilitate these interviews with her friends gives the intimacy a choreographed atmosphere that contorts Kid 90’s somewhat confessional interviews into exchanges that the film portrays as old friends catching up. That choice left me wondering what nuance could have been extracted from these actors were they sharing their experiences to someone outside their bubble, or directly to the camera as Frye does. The fact that Frye prompts their recall tethers their experiences to her own. This deepens the personal nature of the film but it also diminishes Green, Arquette and company’s recollection from the particularity that Frye’s experiences are offered. The closeness emphasizes and, sometimes, undermines Kid 90’s goal. But the film is still a worthwhile effort that’s premise and delivery demonstrate the difficulty of bridging the gap between spectator and celebrity.
Director: Soleil Moon Frye
Release Date: March 12, 2021 (Hulu)
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.