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In the 1990s, as Soleil Moon Frye transitioned in the public eye from Punky Brewster prodigy to guest star on popular shows like Saved by the Bell and The Wonder Years to supporting player in TV movies and schlocky horror flicks, she started recording her life on video camera to regain a measure of control. Captured during their adolescence, at hangouts and house parties, were some of the biggest teen stars of the era: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Mario Lopez, Corey Feldman, Sara Gilbert, Jonathan Brandis, Brian Austin Green, Joey Lawrence, Emmanuel Lewis and, for some reason (albeit very briefly), Mickey Rourke, who would’ve turned 40 in 1992. There were traces of future stars, too, like Mark Wahlberg, Robin Thicke and Sugar Ray lead singer Mark McGrath. And then Frye put these tapes away for two decades, along with the voicemails and diary entries she’d saved from that time.
Frye’s reacquaintance with this material is the raison d’être for the new Hulu documentary kid 90, an invitation for nostalgia and reconsideration that ultimately delivers on neither. Despite the two dozen or so actors and musicians whose adolescent selves appear in the 72-minute film, kid 90 is an autobiographical project that insists on missing the forest for the trees. Building toward a lament for all the friends in the business who died prematurely and Frye’s resulting survivor’s guilt, the doc is conspicuously incurious about the systemic factors that may have contributed to their deaths, such as financial and familial pressure, addiction, sexual trauma and other mental health struggles.
AIR DATE Mar 12, 2021
Initially, kid 90’s focus on Frye is an asset, her post-Punky years both typical and somewhat unusual for a child star. The actress-director recalls struggling to be taken seriously as a young teen in Hollywood, especially after a medical condition left her with abnormally large breasts at a relatively early age (and the nickname “Punky Boobster”). Frye went public with her breast reduction at 15 years old, serving as an eloquent narrator of her own experiences for magazine profiles and daytime talk-show appearances. But that’s about when her personal story as a teen actor stops being interesting, and she doesn’t supplement her tale with those of anybody else.
The ’90s witnessed an increasing professionalization of child stardom, especially with the spread of cable expanding both the number of roles for young actors and of shows for children and teenagers. Rather than provide an overview of this phenomenon, Frye grounds her point of view strictly within her social circles, which seem relatively tame. But it’s hard to get a sense of how these friendships were formed and how solid they were, given the likelihood that the young performers were frequently competing for the same roles at audition after audition.
Nor is there much insight into the struggles of actors who didn’t enjoy the security and stability of a family like Frye’s, which also benefitted from a multigenerational familiarity with the industry. Later, Frye regrets that she didn’t see what she now interprets as her friends’ cries for help. But the more interesting question is whether that inability or refusal to see the darkness around her ultimately helped Frye survive all these years.
kid 90’s account of child stardom during the Clinton years is further skewed by the unexplained disproportionate maleness of both Frye’s camera subjects and talking-head interviewees, which include Gosselaar, Green, Stephen Dorff, David Arquette and Balthazar Getty. (The lone woman among them is Heather McComb.) The absence of this cohort’s female members may explain why there are surprisingly few #MeToo-style revelations of sexual impropriety, though Frye shares her own experiences of sexual harassment and hypersexualization on set.
It’s certainly novel to see the younger versions of so many familiar faces, but kid 90 doesn’t offer anything beyond what a YouTube deep dive might yield, even if these videos haven’t been seen before. The footage is cut up into seconds-long clips, providing bursts of youthful ebullience but little sense of what these actors were “really” like. Save for the celebrity that Frye had sex with during her first time, the film is also mostly devoid of gossip and even colorful anecdotes.
By the time Frye leaves Los Angeles for New York for college — and later visits friend Danny Boy O’Connor of the rap group House of Pain in Oklahoma to remember their teenage years together — whatever narrative imposed on this footage feels stretched to the limit. Frye’s desire to learn what she can from her unusual childhood in the spotlight is unquestionably sincere, but the recollections and reflections she’s willing to impart perhaps belong more in a diary than a documentary.
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