Well before cell phone cameras and social media made documentation of everyday life ubiquitous, Soleil Moon Frye was toting a handheld camera as a child actress in Hollywood.
The actress, who made her name playing the titular character in the ’80s sitcom “Punky Brewster,” documented her youth with the fervor of a modern-day influencer. But while society has become acclimated to a constant documentation of self, it was a rarer sight in the ’90s, even among a crowd — Leonardo DiCaprio, Brian Austin Green and Mark Wahlberg included — who grew up on-screen and in the public eye.
“It was pre-social media and pre-cell phone, so people were like, ‘what are you doing’?” says Frye, who decades later has woven that archival footage into her documentary “Kid 90,” out this week on Hulu. The dynamic plays out on-screen as the subjects in her archival footage interact directly with the camera. “I talked to one of my childhood best friends and he was like, ‘I didn’t really understand — now, I understand. It’s like you were this teen journalist, who was documenting the world around her.’”
Frye carried a camera with her everywhere while growing up in Los Angeles in the ’90s and in New York as a college student at The New School. “And then I locked [the footage] away for over 20 years,” she says.
Around four years ago, “I started to really wonder if things had happened the way I remembered them,” says Frye. She had recently turned 40, and was living a happy and fulfilled life with her family — but at the same time, she began reflecting on who she was in addition to being a mother and a wife. She decided it was time to finally open the vault: Tupperware containers filled with tapes of her video footage, diaries kept since she was a young child, audio recordings and voicemails. “I unlocked Pandora’s box and discovered true self-love and sense of self and rediscovered who I once was in these tapes.”
She found off-the-cuff footage of childhood friends like Green and Wahlberg, Jonathan Brandis, Heather McComb, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Stephen Dorff, Will Smith, David Arquette and Michael Rapaport. Her footage from New York features the downtown skate crowd she became part of — “Kids” stars Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce, and Peter Bici. “We had the time of our lives,” says Frye of her New York years. “It was so incredible, and so full of life and love and youth and Forties and blunts and fun times.”
In addition to the archival footage and audio, “Kid 90” features current-day interviews with Green, Gosselaar, Arquette, Dorff and “House of Pain” rapper (also Frye’s ex-boyfriend) Danny Boy. After turning in an early cut of the film, a conversation with her friend, Sean Penn, led her to Ross McElwee’s 1986 documentary “Sherman’s March” — which starts out as a Civil War film and evolves into a story about the filmmaker’s dating efforts. (Penn, who served as an executive producer, also told DiCaprio — who appears in Frye’s footage — about the project, and DiCaprio brought his Appian Way production company into the mix.)
Making “Kid 90” turned into a journey for Frye — what started out as a film about loss of privacy and coming-of-age in the decade before social media turned into a reinvestigation of the past and reassessment of the present. Frye realized that she needed to go back and rewatch all of her found footage, and started cutting a new version of the film with interviews woven in. The nostalgic film also serves as a tribute to her close friends who are tragically no longer around to watch the footage — Hunter and Pierce, as well as Brandis and Shannon Wilsey and Rodney Harvey. All died by suicide or drug overdose.
“I think on a subconscious level, I locked it all away and wasn’t ready to face it,” says Frye, adding that the process of making the film was therapeutic and helped rectify her grief and guilt around all of the loss. “I really do feel surrounded by these angels around me, who I feel with me every day and every night,” she adds.
In addition to stepping back into character as Punky Brewster for the show’s recent reboot, Frye is at work on another documentary, from footage taken during a road trip with her father while he was struggling with Alzheimer’s. Similar to “Kid 90,” she locked that footage away for many years.
“I’m finally going to be ready to share that with the world,” says Frye. “I have this interesting thing where I capture the world and the dynamics around me, and then lock it in my vault. It’s only been at this stage in my life that I really have the courage to share it with the world.
“I truly believe this: my true self left a chronological blueprint for me to find my way back home to who I once was, and in doing that, it changed my entire life,” she adds. “Because in doing it, I discovered that artist inside that I once was, and that spark that I had associated with youth got reignited.”
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