Exposing the Wild and Tragic Lives of ’90s Teen Stars
Using a mix of found VHS footage, photos, diary entries, and voicemails, as well as modern-day interviews, Soleil Moon Frye looks back on her ’90s heyday in the Hulu doc “Kid 90.”
Soleil Moon Frye reckons with her past at the very moment she re-enters the spotlight—via the vehicle that first made her a star—with Kid 90, a Hulu documentary whose March 12 release dovetails with the recent premiere of Frye’s rebooted Punky Brewster. Culled from a treasure trove of VHS footage that she shot during her ’90s teenage years, Frye’s non-fiction trip back in time serves as a personal quest to process her tumultuous celebrity experiences in the aftermath of her NBC hit. It’s a candid autobiographical portrait of a childhood that was both wholly unique and, in many respects, no different than millions of others—replete, as Frye reveals, with self-image difficulties and a harrowing instance of sexual assault.
Frye doesn’t name the man who raped her when she was still a teenage virgin, but archival audio clips of him discussing the incident with her will no doubt lead to considerable speculation about his identity. More compelling than that grim guessing game, however, is Frye’s frank address of that traumatic attack. As she says, “I never really dealt with it because I never shared it. So I just locked it away. I locked it away in my vault, and I wrote this happy story. Or, this story that was really joyful and for me, that I could wrap my head around. And that was just a part of my life that I put in a vault that I never wanted to open up.” Illustrating the warts-and-all nature of Frye’s endeavor, she then reads passages from her diary in which she partially (and wrongly) blamed herself for this violation.
It’s also clear that this assault amplified Frye’s already significant hang-ups about her looks and sexuality. Those had come to the fore in the years following Punky Brewster, when her body developed so rapidly—by the age of 15, her breast size was almost an E—that it came to dominate the public discourse around her, to confusing ends. A highly publicized breast reduction surgery ensued, which she thought would change how people viewed her (and thus allow her to proceed with an adult acting career). Yet the scars of that ordeal remained, given that in an instant, “I went from living this amazing childhood to almost being forced into adulthood.”
Kid 90 is an act of memory excavation and exposure, and it benefits from Frye’s willingness to be an open book about not only those thorny topics, but just about every other facet of her upbringing, good and bad. In forthright new interviews, she lays bare her complicated emotions as a teenager trying to maintain her stardom in a Hollywood that only saw her as a cute tyke and, afterwards, a buxom sex object. Given her rocky path, it’s not surprising to hear Saved by the Bell’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar recount his own mixed feelings about being a teen idol, which were unpleasant enough to make him now state, “This is an adult business. And that’s one of the reasons I don’t want my children in it, is because I don’t feel it’s a place for children.”
Utilizing the camcorder material Frye shot at the time, numerous voicemail messages, photographs and diary entries, and present-day interviews with many of her child-actor pals (Brian Austin Green, Stephen Dorff, Balthazar Getty, David Arquette, Jenny Lewis, Heather McComb), Kid 90 paints a picture of an entertainment machine that often chewed up and spit out promising talents. Frye’s tale is pockmarked with artist friends who didn’t survive their tenure in the industry, from Jonathan Brandis, Sean Caracena and Shannon Wilsey (aka adult film actress Savannah), to Kids stars Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce. Her guilt over not hearing their cries for help—a natural byproduct of youthful self-centeredness and ignorance—is underscored by audio and video snippets in which they voice their anguish and suicidal thoughts. “I think we all must have felt lonely in some ways. Or at least, some of us more than others,” Frye states with palpable sadness in her eyes and voice. In these passages, her film captures the tragic poignancy of 20/20 hindsight, when things appear much clearer than they did during crazy youthful heydays.
Not that Kid 90 is all regret and misery. As infectiously charismatic off-screen as she was on, Frye clearly lived a rambunctious and bubbly teen life, both in Los Angeles and, later, in New York City as an independently-minded actress striving to forge her own identity on the stage. In recounting the good times, she doesn’t sugarcoat anything, presenting multiple scenes of her smoking weed, doing shots and tripping on mushrooms with her friends, thereby lending the proceedings a refreshing authenticity. These sights are complemented by diary passages in which she talks about her multiple crushes (Johnny Depp, Joey Lawrence), her quasi-romantic friendship with House of Pain’s Danny Boy O’Connor, and her anxiety about losing her virginity, which she wrote about with a florid earnestness that will undoubtedly sound familiar to many female viewers. Even when the film discloses who she first slept with—via voicemail messages from a certain notorious hot shot—it does so with a cagey playfulness that feels in tune with the actress/director’s personality.
In total, Frye comes across as a relatable girl who was alternately chaste and wild, confident and insecure, outgoing and private, and Kid 90 proves energized by her willingness to bluntly investigate her ’90s ups and downs. Featuring sightings of just about everyone who was anyone during that period—including Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Jonathan Silverman, and Dana Ashbrook—it’s an up-close-and-personal snapshot of a particular pop-culture moment, and of a community built by and for young stars to help them cope with the insanity of fame. Furthermore, it’s a record of an era in which kids were becoming comfortable having their day-to-day hijinks recorded 24/7, and yet didn’t have to fear that one wrong caught-on-camera move would lead to immediate internet scandal. In that regard, it’s not only a timeless document of youthful maturation, but a nostalgic look back at a world lost forever.