‘Kid 90’: Soleil Moon Frye Unveils Her Home Videos in Search of Lost Time

At first glance the Hulu documentary “Kid 90” might seem like another vanity project. Actor Soleil Moon Frye of “Punky Brewster” opens her trove of home videos to reminisce about her early days of fame. But once you actually begin watching the documentary it becomes much more. Since the emergence of video cameras, revisiting the past has become easier. We can fast forward and rewind through time, pausing to obsessively analyze a moment. When Frye began videotaping her exploits with other young stars of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, social media was a fantasy and your recordings still held a sense of privacy. Who would ever watch them besides yourself and the participants? This helps give Frye’s material a powerful intimacy in what becomes a chronicle of being famous too soon in the Clinton era.

There is a point where Frye, who directs and provides an on-camera testimonial, reads one of her teenage diary entries where she describes being attached to nostalgia. “Kid 90” is the very definition of the word. Fame for Frye came early, when in 1983 at the age of 7 she was cast as Punky Brewster in the famous NBC sitcom. But by the age of 16, and after the show’s run ended, Frye was instantly pulled into a circle of emerging young stars that defined the teen shows, movies and obsessions of the 1990s. She documented the period in endless hours of video and audio she has kept filed away like a scholar. What emerges is also a personal recap of the very mindset of a different, yet not so distant moment in time. Once she began developing into a young woman, Frye learned quickly about the objectification that comes with it. Tired of being leered at or cast because of her body type, Frye undergoes breast reduction surgery and longs to be taken seriously as an actor. While she keeps getting cast in corny teenage thrillers, she parties hard with other stars of the era like Brian Austin Green and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who also appear on camera reflecting on living a mixture of adolescence and fame. 

Green and Gosselaar, who respectively became youth idols in shows like “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Saved by the Bell,” are joined by other celebrities who formed part of Frye’s inner circle including Stephen Dorff and David Arquette, in helping recount the memories Frye unveils in her camcorder archives. But this isn’t some glossy round table where Hollywood actors show off their exploits. Like Hulu’s much-discussed “Framing Britney Spears,” Frye’s documentary is an insider’s account of a pre-#MeToo world where young stars were turned into hyper-sexualized products, while still grappling with the experiences of growing up. In an answering machine recording a handler warns Frye not to ever let herself be taped using the word “fuck,” since it would ruin her family-friendly Punky Brewster image. In other recordings she confesses the suffocating feeling of developing and having men pinch her. Her family looks quite supportive, even the actor father who was rarely home and had been friends with icons like Marlon Brando. But Frye never pretends to blame her upbringing. Instead, it’s the nature of the system itself that perturbs someone like Gosselaar, who states he has forbidden his own kids from getting into entertainment.

Yet youthful impulses and the drive to experiment never change, for these kids it was all simply heightened by money and access. Frye almost has mischievous fun juxtaposing a clip of her appearing on TV, telling kids not to do drugs to be cool, with footage of her and her companions doing quite a lot of drugs. Friends and would-be boyfriends would include some real party animals like House of Pain’s Danny Boy, who later has a heartfelt reunion in the present day with Frye. Suitors on Frye’s answering machine include Mark Wahlberg and Charlie Sheen, the latter Frye very openly admits took her virginity. The tone never becomes scandalous, but like memories rushing forward with all of their powerful feelings and emotional resonances. Film editor Matt D. Ferro helps Frye assemble the footage into a meaningful narrative that works in layers. There’s a young Leonardo DiCaprio with Frye and the gang at Six Flags, and she mentions falling in love with Johnny Depp after meeting him in person. Frye had many instant crushes at the time, except she actually met these sex symbols.

“Kid 90” never lingers too long over these superficial aspects of Frye’s memories. It then goes into a much deeper, insightful place when she looks closer at the footage and realizes with the clarity of age what she missed. Secret struggles and pains were there, but with the fever of being a teenager in the moment she couldn’t foretell the abyss some of her friends were diving into. She moved to New York City in the late ‘90s to study acting, befriending the skater actors from Larry Clark’s controversial “Kids,” Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter. Both would meet tragic deaths as a result of depression and drug abuse. Other faces and voices now sound like cries for help in the camcorder videos. A close-up reveals lost, sad eyes Frye had no way of reading in the decade before she even reached 20. That Frye herself survived is a testament to either luck or strength of character. She came out of the era with her own scarred memories, one very much including rape. Her diary entry of the incident has the heartbreaking confusion of a young person trying to dissect the moment in a time devoid of the language and understanding we have now.

“Kid 90” is about the kind of teenage lives few people experience but it touches on a wider theme of memory in our time. Frye came of age when people could suddenly begin recording most of their existence on video, and now we can capture nearly every waking minute on our phones in high definition. Even as the past becomes distant, it is becoming easier to revisit, and maybe harder to forget. Frye is naturally nostalgic, so for her these videos are an obsession, a way of reaching back to lost years. Revisiting the past has a universal power however, just look at the expressions on Dorff or Danny Boy’s faces when Frye shows them old clips of themselves. While her youth was marked by fame and excess, even a simpler life has moments someone out there wishes they could revisit, to either enjoy or make sense of.

Kid 90” begins streaming March 12 on Hulu.