After flexing her “Punky power” as the 7-year old star of the ’80s sitcom Punky Brewster, Soleil Moon Frye spent her teen years mostly behind a video camera, documenting her life, loves, and fellow child star friends. Capturing intimate moments of kid celebrity convergence — like trips to Magic Mountain with Brian Austin Green and Leonardo DiCaprio — Frye shot hours and hours of her Hollywood crew being average ’90s teens who just happened to be famous or were fast on their way.
Frye, now 44, and still recognizable as the once-ubiquitous moppet who charmed talk show hosts and even Nancy Reagan, shares at the top of her new Hulu documentary Kid 90 (★★☆☆☆) that she’s kept her trove of video footage, and detailed diaries, locked away until now. At last, she’s ready to “unlock the vault,” only to reveal… not much more than warm nostalgia, bittersweet memories of friends gone too soon, and the heretofore little-known fact that seemingly every working actor under 21 was hanging out at her mom’s house in the ’90s.
Frye organizes years of home movies into a retrospective voyage of self-discovery — admirable for her, not so involving for us — helped along by fresh interviews with many of those all-grown-up kid stars. Beverly Hills, 90210 actor Green offers a lesson in kid star humility, describing the failure of his universally-reviled 1996 hip-hop album One Stop Carnival as the first time he realized everyone might not love every single thing he does. David Arquette catalogs the heaps of substances that were used and, by some, abused. Stephen Dorff strikes the pose of elder statesman. Saved by the Bell‘s Mark-Paul Gosselaar recalls the emotional challenges of being a naïve kid working in an adult professional environment.
Those challenges, among other mental and physical health issues, proved too overwhelming for too many of the kids in Frye’s circle, including close pal Jonathan Brandis, the former teen star who died by suicide in 2003, at the age of 27. Brandis is just one of several friends included in the film who did not survive their brush with fame. Frye attempts, through interviews and narration, to explore her residual guilt for not recognizing the respective calls for help, but doesn’t turn up any noteworthy epiphanies.
She was going through her own growing pains at the time, having blossomed several bra sizes in just a few years, attracting the leering attention of the press and men in her industry. Kid 90‘s confessional style cuts deepest as Frye bravely recounts her own struggles: navigating the rough road from child star to serious actor, feeling that she had no choice but to undergo breast reduction surgery at 16 to escape all the unwanted attention, and then, a year later, being sexually assaulted by a man she was dating.
On the last subject, the film’s rearview appears deliberately foggy, probably for legal reasons, as must also be the case with Frye’s shown-but-not-named ex Charlie Sheen. Given the editing and obfuscation, it’s hard to tell if the film is implicating Sheen in the horrible act Frye recounts, or if she’s describing someone else entirely. Kid 90 purports to hold these events and losses up for close examination, but, for all its trouble, produces a wistful look back with precious little insight.
Kid 90 is available for streaming starting Friday, March 12 on Hulu. Visit www.hulu.com.
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