Soleil Moon Frye didn’t know what she was going to find when she opened the vault.
That vault is a treasure trove of self-shot camcorder footage, audio tapes of answering machine messages, recorded interviews, and diary entries. It’s a time capsule, really, from the ’90s, when the actress had just wrapped her run as the precocious Punky Brewster and was coming into her own as a teenager and a woman.
There are clips of Frye and her friends hanging out, teasing each other, gossiping about crushes, and wondering innocently about the future. They’re snapshots of growing up that would make any millennial feel nostalgic, they’re that familiar and relatable—except for the small caveat that it is the decade’s biggest young Hollywood stars that are filmed palling around with Frye: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Brian Austin Green, Leonardo DiCaprio, David Arquette, Charlie Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and more.
That archive is the backbone of Kid 90, the documentary now out on Hulu, in which Frye, who was just 7 when she skyrocketed to fame on Punky Brewster, confronts memories both happy and painful. She talks with those same friends from the vantage point of adulthood, after nursing the scars of child stardom, about what they do and do not remember—and what they’re meant to make of it all now.
“Really, I started this documentary when I was a child,” Frye says, speaking over Zoom three days after Kid 90 premiered on Hulu and—in a bit of unplanned cosmic synergy—just weeks after the revival of Punky Brewster that she stars in debuted on Peacock.
“I was this kid journalist keeping my diaries and filming everything and documenting everything,” she says, “and I really do feel that it was a chronological blueprint for me to find my way back home to the person that I once was. In a way, that my teenage self left this blueprint for me to come back to.”
For Frye, it’s a deeply personal look back at her relationship to celebrity, her body image, and sexuality. In addition to fond memories of first crushes, falling in love, and deep, rewarding relationships, specifically with House of Pain’s Danny Boy O’Connor, Frye grapples with a sexual assault she experienced while still a virgin, the details of which she had buried until she unearthed a recording of herself talking about it.
Kid 90 is as euphoric as it is harrowing. For all the unbothered bliss you see in Frye and her friends as they explore the boundaries of partying, there are the tragic stories of her friends including Jonathan Brandis and Justin Pierce, who both committed suicide. Watching the footage of themselves now, Frye and her other friends can’t help but wonder if youthful ignorance and self-centeredness caused them to miss their friends’ cries for help.
“So much of what I remembered had been so joyful and full of love and life, and there is so much joy and love of life,” Frye says. “The discovery of so much pain—I think that it must have been a subconscious thing. It was something that I think was really very subconscious, that I stored it away. That I wasn’t ready to face it.”
At first, Frye had planned to make a documentary “about everyone but me.” She envisioned it as an exploration of the last decade of privacy, when these young stars could record themselves goofing around and being authentic without the fear, or even the expectation, that the footage would become public. But then she embarked on the task of watching every piece of video and listening to every tape, and it became clear how personal the process had become for her.
“What it ended up being was me having to peel back the onion to my core, and, in that, releasing fear and all of those things,” she says. “I had to live through the pain over and over and just go through that process. I had to do it for myself.”
In Kid 90, Frye reads from a diary entry from when she was a teenager, her voice tremulous as she fights back tears reciting what her younger self had written about being raped during her first time having sex. She wrote that he “thrust himself in me” even though she said she didn’t want to have sex. After she pushed him off, he asked her, “How does it feel not being a virgin anymore?”
She grapples with the guilt and the shame she had felt, and wondered if she was to blame. It’s something she realized that she hadn’t processed until working on the documentary. In fact, she had buried the trauma away completely. (In the film, Frye also reveals that her “first consensual sexual experience” was with Charlie Sheen.)
“When I had that experience and I was trying to piece it together, my adult brain could remember pieces, but not everything,” she says. “Then finding a tape in which I’m trying to question what happened, I didn’t know that tape existed. So on a subconscious level I must have just locked so many of those memories away.”
It’s interesting to witness Frye’s candor now about everything she went through while being reintroduced to the teenage version of her through the film. She revisits the years following Punky Brewster when her body developed so rapidly that she was thrust into adulthood, which is to say leered at and sexualized before she was ready. Her breasts grew to almost a size E, and the public’s fascination with them complicated her body image and ideas about self-worth.
Just before she turned 16, she made the decision to have breast reduction surgery. Not only did she go public with the choice, appearing on the cover of People magazine and on talk shows discussing it, she also used the opportunity to talk about her decision to remain a virgin and the pressures of sex and importance of consent for young girls.
Looking back, Frye now thinks that honesty at such a young age—especially at a time when young celebrities, particularly girls, were not expected to speak so openly about those issues—is owed to being the daughter of two activists, who raised her to be of service to other people.
“So as a teenager, I really felt like the right thing was to share,” she says. “Because I felt like if I was going through this, then so many other people must be going through similar things. And as I say in the documentary, I was kind of righteous about it. I was like, ‘I’m gonna do this and I'm gonna make a difference.’”
The truth is that she received beautiful responses from other girls who thanked her and wanted to share their own experiences and struggles. It was Hollywood and the press that were less kind.
“The media’s reaction and the business I was in and the dynamics around me were the awkward part,” she says. “They were the ones that made it feel dismissive in a way, and more like a punch line versus something that I felt I needed to share.”
As the mother of four girls—two of whom are young girls—she was struck by how relevant the feelings she was working through while making Kid 90 are today.
“It’s such an incredible conversation that we need to be having, which is one size doesn’t fit all,” she says about girls’ relationship to body image and sex. “And it’s magnified so much by social media. I look at my own daughters and their development. Just because one kid wears a tank top and has one body size and another wears a tank top and has another body size which they have no control over, we’re going to shame them? What the fuck is that?”
“So, yes, the media was around and there was the objectification I felt around me,” she continues. “Now you multiply that times a bazillion and you think about every kid who’s living through this filter world of social media at their fingertips. And also in the world in which anybody can say anything. It just is something that I think is so important for us to have the conversation about because I think the long term effects are going to be staggering.”
Frye frequently compares digging through all of her old footage in Kid 90 to opening Pandora’s Box. It causes pain, troubles, and chaos. For most people, the threat of that darkness and uncovering long-buried secrets and trauma would make the exercise too frightening.
But in the four and a half years that she was working on the project, Frye discovered that that was precisely why she needed to open the box. She needed to unleash the memories, and then release herself from the shame.
“It was about rehealing the little girl in me,” she says. “And in rehealing the little girl in me, coming of age again into the woman that I am today. I just wanted to wrap my arms around her and say, ‘I love you. And every experience—the good, the messy, the painful—everything will lead you to where you are meant to be, and it is happening for you and not to you. Just always remember that and never forget it.’”
The fact that this healing journey is happening at the same time that Frye is stepping back into Punky Brewster’s mismatched Chuck Taylors for the show’s Peacock revival is a surreal full-circle coincidence she still can’t get over. Her Kid 90 producer’s husband even asked how they managed to have the film come out timed to the reboot, but the truth is that there was no plan. It’s just how the universe willed it to happen.
“I was never trying to run from Punky,” she says. “I’m like, if I’m 88 years old and people still call me Punky, I’d be thrilled by it.”
She laughs, but also seems to get a little emotional when talking about how the process of working on the documentary helped her find the courage to be able to do the show again.
“I think so often we’re programmed from years of insecurities to think, can we really do it?” she says. “Just the programming that happens when so many people say, ‘You can’t do something,’ or, ‘It’s gonna be hard.’ We lose, at least for me, that inner spark that is such a belief system. I always associated that with youth. And then in this experience I started to feel this igniting and that spark again and I was like, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like to be living your truth.’ I’m just so grateful.”