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'Kid 90' Review: Haunting Hollywood Home Movies

An intimate look at the teenage antics of '90s child stars and the lessons learned from looking back.

Soleil Moon Frye in Kid 90
(Image: © Courtesy of Soleil Moon Frye)

Our Verdict

An often searing and heartbreaking examination of growing up in Hollywood that adds to the growing conversation, but it feels slight at times.

For

  • 🥤Anyone that grew up watching these stars or has an interest in celebrity culture will find this fascinating.
  • 🥤Despite the Hollywood aspect there is relatability to Frye's experiences.
  • 🥤Adds to the current conversation about this decade and the way child stars are treated by the media.
  • 🥤Frye's use of clips and diary entries to support her anecdotes is effective.

Against

  • 🥤Some elements are glossed over and could do with further inspection.
  • 🥤Even before social media, were child stars ever not performing when a camera was on?

First fashion turned its lens back to the decade that favored spaghetti straps, bucket hats, and chokers, swiftly followed by remakes and reboots of ‘90s material ranging from Twin Peaks to Full House. Revisiting trends isn’t relegated to the runway and TV revivals, as news stories that dominated over 20 years ago are being put under the spotlight. The OJ Simpson murder trial has been subject to dramatized depictions, podcasts, and award-winning documentaries, and Bill Clinton’s impeachment is also getting the Ryan Murphy American Crime Story treatment. Coverage of Britney Spears’ rise to fame has recently been revisited thanks in part to the FX on Hulu documentary The New York Times Presents Framing Britney Spears (along with reports that Netlflix has a Britney doc in the works). The conversation around any of these topics often centers on the narrative of the time and how this translates through a contemporary lens, dialing into a queasy nostalgia while introducing new audiences to these events. Enter the new Hulu documentary, Kid 90 to add to the inflamed discourse around fame, adolescence, and the media.

Soleil Moon Frye doesn’t have the same instant name recognition as Spears or Simpson, but the character she played for four seasons on NBC — now a reboot on Peacock — in the 1980s (followed by subsequent reruns) is a household name for a generation. Playing the fearless Punky Brewster until puberty hit, Frye’s difficulty transitioning from cute child star to teen sensation is a familiar story (see Mara Wilson’s book Where Am I Now? for more on this). But while this might be a Hollywood tale as old as time, Frye’s exploration of this fraught and fun period comes with a treasure trove of home videos, voice messages, and diary entries chronicling this complicated period of her life. In a pre-social media era, Frye’s time capsule offers an unfiltered (literally) glimpse into the antics of recognizable ‘90s faces including Stephen Dorff, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Brian Austin Green. Not only are they caught on Frye’s camcorder, but they also contribute commentary via candid talking heads. In the unique behind-the-scenes exploration of child stars on the verge of adulthood, the actress captures emotional triumphs and turmoil. Going for a drive, goofing off and even news stories like the infamous Bronco chases are caught in Frye’s extensive archive  

“We did the things that teenagers did, we just happened to be in Hollywood,” Frye remarks nonchalantly reminding the audience that while some of these experiences are acutely familiar, elements are magnified because she grew up in the public eye. The documentary is at its strongest when it focuses on the latter and this coming-of-age story doubles as a celebrity cautionary tale. Frye is both the star and director of Kid 90, striving to regain control over a past that she has locked away (both figuratively and literally) for more than 20 years.    

Referring to the treasure trove of material from her adolescence as opening Pandora’s Box, Frye contemplates whether the footage will resemble memories of this time. Artifacts of her public life include interviews in which she discusses being a virgin — as with Britney there is an obsession with asking teen girls this invasive question — and the People magazine cover documenting her plastic surgery. One such procedure was a breast reduction just shy of her 16 birthday that dominated headlines. This rapid development led to the nickname “Punky Boobster” and the more recent treatment of Modern Family’s Ariel Winter highlights how little has changed when it comes to the way teenage girls’ bodies are dissected with little consideration for the person. Diary extracts and audio recordings reveal the creepy comments adult men made to Frye when she was 13 and the impact this had on her mental health and career. No doubt, the entertainment industry has slightly shifted in the past few years since the Me Too movement took hold, but it is telling that one former child star tells Frye he won’t allow his children to enter into the business at a young age because of what he experienced.  

It is impossible to extract showbiz elements from Frye’s journey — she even comments that being cast as Punky at 7 means it is hard for her to know where Punky ends and Soleil begins — and therefore, the movie does sometimes veer into 'therapy for actors' territory. Despite the starry framework, there are plenty of moments caught on camera that are incredibly relatable. Crushes (albeit on movie stars within her orbit), experimenting with illicit substances, and hanging out with friends are all regular teen antics. Documenting these moments was not invented when social media came into fruition and her desire to capture the mundane is familiar. While I am a few years younger than Frye, I lived in this space before the internet became what it is now and I also have shoeboxes filled with mementos and images from the ‘90s. Frye’s photo collage of her friends resembles my own — minus stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, of course — and the heady feelings written in multiple diaries capture a solid teen girl mood, even if the Los Angeles zip code is far from my own. 

Soleil Moon Frye in Kid 90

(Image credit: Amanda Demme )

“It was like our ‘60s” comments Dorff about how wild it got during this time and a montage intercut with Frye taking part in a “Just Say No” campaign reflects the public persona versus the private. Again, the rawness of the footage captured on shaky video camera is in stark contrast to the carefully curated TikTok and Instagram Stories — now there is a filter to give that “authentic” camcorder feeling. Teen stars that came up after Frye like Britney were swarmed by paparazzi who caught their every move (and mistake). Camera phones give anyone the chance to become a viral sensation while also dictating that celebrities are “on” at all times. The freedom that exists in Frye’s candid camera snapshots is absent from most social media feeds and while there is a performative element that is hard to ignore (they are actors, after all), the footage is pretty standard teen fare: they get drunk, laugh, cry and wax lyrical about the future.

However, this is not a glossy portrayal to match Punky Brewster sitcom make-believe. “It got dark,” actor David Arquette acknowledges, and a troubling pattern emerges among her friends on both coasts. Hindsight coupled with muddled memories is a potent combination and the guilt Frye feels is evident before she even comments on it. Coming full circle in capturing these moments on camera more than 20 years later might be cathartic, but there is an uneasiness to some of the conclusions she draws. Aided by knowledge of how some of these stories have already ended in tragedy, it is easy to see the warning signs when all the facts are available. At times it feels like we are intruding on the trauma and profound guilt she is experiencing, peeking in on a private therapy session. But having grown up under the microscope, this is very much Frye’s world and this is a reminder that stars aren't always like us. This is not the rose-tinted version of a past and while there is a heavy dose of ‘90s nostalgia, events that occurred in the decades that followed undoubtedly shift her focus.

Soleil Moon Frye and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in Kid 90

(Image credit: Courtesy of Soleil Moon Frye)

Running at 70 minutes, there are plenty of shaky videos intercut with present-day recollections offering an aesthetic that any found footage movie can dream of — there is an element of dizziness during some of the longer clips. Unlike Alex Winters’ recent HBO documentary Showbiz Kids (which looks to multiple generations of child stars), this is a more intimate and specific portrait of growing up and working in the public eye. It comes in the midst of a reckoning that began with Harvey Weinstein’s downfall and continues with the recent conversation focusing on Britney Spears. There’s a lot of unresolved trauma and guilt that bubbles to the surface, which fuels Frye’s project. The “Punky Boobster” comments are horrifying, but this trauma goes beyond words. Grappling with all this information that she has boxed away leads to some powerful moments that reinforce the image of a toxic Tinseltown.

Some momentum is lost when Frye makes the move to New York and there are elements and relationships that warrant a deeper dive. Furthermore, outtakes used in the credits are scenes that would benefit from being in the main feature. Playing spot the celebrity (particularly when it is someone of Leo’s caliber) is a fun aspect for anyone who grew up during the ‘90s, but this documentary is also a reminder that the teen experience is already awkward enough without the Hollywood spotlight. Looking back can be enlightening and painful, much like adolescence.  

Kid 90 will be available to stream on Hulu March 12, 2021.