The actor Soleil Moon Frye is best known for her role as Punky Brewster, a character she played on the eponymous sitcom in the mid-’80s. In it, she was an adorable moppet who endeared herself to an old man and seemingly everyone she met. But Frye had a life after the show ended, becoming a young woman, and she documented this transition through video and audio recordings. Kid 90, a documentary directed by Frye, is a collage-like approach of that footage, with Frye interviewing other child actors from the 1980s and 1990s. A vanity project to the core, Frye falls into a classic misstep: She assumes that others will be as interested in her life as she is.
Frye’s recordings sometimes stumble into candid, heartbreaking moments. She developed a close friendship with Jonathan Brandis, another child actor who eventually took his own life, and she plays voicemails where you can hear the pain in his voice. She went on a road trip with the musician Jenny Lewis, who was then an actor, and she maintains her deadpan humor even after a police officer pulls them over. All of this colors Frye’s life as she left celebrity fame and became a struggling actor in New York City. She can be candid: She is frank about her breast reduction as a teenager—she was sick of being called “Punky Boobster”—and she talks about her romantic life teasingly. Despite the a halfhearted attempt to be transparent about her intentions, yet Frye’s creative control suggests she advances a particular agenda.
At first, it seems like Frye has an interest in this band of actors in a general way. She interviews many recognizable faces, including Stephen Dorff and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and collectively they create a group that is both sincere and bizarre. Many of these young people had a public adolescence, which certainly had significant impacts on their development and outlook. These interviews, however, only have a surface-level interest in the topic. The film’s true subject is Frye herself, and her dearth of insight is ultimately exhausting. When she is on camera in the present day, reflecting and getting emotional about what footage she uncovered, it always sounds rehearsed. Yes, she is an actor and that might be her nature, but the performance lacks credibility.
As a narrator and director, Frye can be coy to the point of seeming unreliable. She talks about her romantic relationships in an obtuse way, sometimes not referring to her boyfriends by name. There are also strange digressions, like when she assimilates into ’90s New York skating culture. Is she straining for significance? In the hands of a different filmmaker, would her interviewees speak about her differently? It is not that Frye does not have answers to these questions. The problem is it never occurs to her to ask them.
The runtime for Kid 90 is 72 minutes, just over an hour, and it somehow still comes off as too padded. Frye includes “extras,” like clips of her interviews that didn’t fit and a tribute to all young actors and musicians she has known over the years who passed away. Frye has great affection for her old friends and her youth. The trouble is that she is too close to and too invested in her subject, so she can’t see her shortcomings as both a filmmaker and an interviewer. Elder millennials and some Gen Xers may enjoy this rose-colored cruise down memory lane, but for everyone else, this is closer to cheesy home movies than a thoughtful, authentic documentary.
Kid 90 is available to stream on Hulu beginning March 12.