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‘Kid 90’ a nostalgia trip for ‘80s kids

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There are a lot of cautionary tales out there regarding the aftermath of child stardom in the entertainment industry. So many times, the Hollywood machine sucks them dry, chews them up and spits them out. Maybe they become punchlines. Maybe they become cautionary tales. Or maybe they just fade away, forgotten.

But what’s the view like from the inside?

That’s the perspective of the new Hulu documentary “Kid 90.” Specifically, it’s the perspective of Soleil Moon Frye, who rose to fame in the mid-1980s as the titular moppet in NBC’s hit series “Punky Brewster.” See, as it turns out, Frye spent much of her adolescence with a video camera in hand, recording the world around her throughout her teen years and into her 20s – and she kept all of it.

Now, a couple of decades after last exploring the material, Frye opts to dive back into the world of her youth as she recorded it, both via video and through relentless journaling. And that youth featured a who’s who of Hollywood’s young people, a very specific cohort from that late-80s/early-90s era. If you were pop culturally aware during that period, you will recognize A LOT of the faces on these tapes.

By weaving together that preexisting material with present-day interviews with some of the people who were there, Frye captures both a very specific moment in time and the impact that that moment had on the people who were living it. The result is a short (70ish minute) documentary that delves deep into the meaning of stardom and the impact that that sort of attention can have on a not-yet-fully-developed person.

Frye is at the center of the frame for much of the film, of course – after all, it is her archives that serve as the foundation, so it makes sense that her story would be the anchor point. And if it were just her, an illustration of the trials and tribulations that come with growing up in the spotlight, that would have been plenty. But when you add to the mix a number of Frye’s peers, a group of older, wiser people who have the same benefit of a two-decades hindsight, you get an even richer document.

Following her journey – from megafamous at age 7 to a Hollywood afterthought in her teens to a college student and young adult seeking to prove (or re-prove) her worth to the business in which she grew up – is a fascinating experience. Frye, now in her mid-40s with a family of her own, looks back on a long-gone time; not forgotten, but filed away.

There’s plenty about the punchline that Frye became after news of her teenaged breast reduction surgery. Ditto her venturing into the realm of substance abuse. We get a very clear sense of a young woman without direction, seeking some sort of guidance with regard to the path best taken. But we also get a portrait of some lovely friendships as well, thanks to the apparent ubiquity of young Frye’s camera.

Let’s talk about the videos. Now, these tapes are very much the output of a young person with zero experience behind the camera. We’re basically talking home video-level output here, with all the ill-conceived close-ups and shaky handheld shots and blown-out lighting and iffy audio. But this isn’t about marking Frye as some sort of budding verité filmmaker – it’s about the raw emotions, both positive and negative, contained within the tapes … as well as the other people on said tapes.

Those people were Frye’s friends. They just happen to also be varying degrees of famous themselves. Watching “Kid 90” is a chance for those of us who came of age in the 1980s to reminisce about some famous figures whose formative years lined up somewhat with our own. Brian Austin Green. Balthazar Getty. Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Stephen Dorff. David Arquette. All of them show up in the present-day talking head segments, sharing their thoughts about that time even as they occasionally pop up in the video archives.

But there are so many more who turn up in Frye’s time machine, one made up of not just videos but audio recordings and journal entries. It’s a wealth of material to be explored. We get looks at the younger days of people who are even more famous now – babyfaces of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jenny Lewis and Sara Gilbert, just for instance. We also get a chance to see some people whose paths took much more tragic turns; for those of a certain age, the numerous appearances of the late Jonathan Brandis will hit particularly hard. All of this, plus some looks at Frye’s romantic relationships with some famous folks (no spoilers – you’ll have to watch it yourself to get those reveals).

Woven throughout are the conversations between the adult Frye and her peers, talking through the lives that they led in those years – the pros and the cons alike.

Watching “Kid 90” is an odd experience. The sheer quantity of Frye’s archives means that there’s a lot of material, but the quality of those tapes varies enough to occasionally present some viewing difficulties. And while Frye opens up and allows herself to be vulnerable, the film leaves a few threads unpulled, content to coast on the admittedly-significant impact of the old footage. One wonders if digging a little deeper would have been beneficial – there certainly seemed to be enough material.

We’ve seen a fair number of stories focused on the adult struggles of child stars, but “Kid 90” is something a little different, a film that aims squarely at one actor’s journey – a journey that said actor documented in the moment. It’s a compelling, if not entirely complete portrait of the path taken by one child star on her way to adulthood.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 15 March 2021 10:06

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