Soleil Moon Frye became the ultimate Eighties child star on Punky Brewster, at the age of seven. She played America’s favorite wise-cracking moppet, wearing mismatched high-tops and extolling the virtues of Punky Power. The show was eventually cancelled in 1988 — and that’s when Frye started toting a video camera around, filming her other child-star friends, just in time for their awkward teen years. Kid 90, a new documentary that begins streaming on Hulu today, turns her home-movie footage into a time capsule of show-biz kids growing up in Nineties Hollywood. It’s timed to coincide with the new Punky reboot on Peacock, starring Frye as a single mom.
As she says in the movie, “Somewhere inside, that teenage girl knew that she was gonna have a story to tell, knew that she was going to go on an adventure. And she was going to document every fucking second of it, so that she could share it someday.” It’s the Goodfellas of child-star sagas, about growing up in a dirty business you can never escape. The best-case scenario is you get to live the rest of your life as a schnook.
Kid 90 is full of her teen antics with pals like Saved by the Bell’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Stephen Dorff, and David Arquette, who show up to relive the memories with her. There’s footage of Jenny Lewis and Sara Gilbert giggling on her couch. (Lewis says, “Cool camera, dude!”) We see her hang with Leonardo DiCaprio, Dustin Diamond, Robin Thicke, Mario Lopez, Charlie Sheen. She hits Sea World with Beverly Hills 90210’s Brian Austin Green, who tells her camera, “Say no to drugs!” The current-day Green tells a funny story about meeting her at her birthday party with A-list guests. “Johnny Depp, C. Thomas Howell, and Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s chimp,” he recalls. “Literally there were like 12 kids in the business, so we all knew everyone. We all knew each other.”
The tapes sat in a storage facility for 20 years. But with this doc, she opens the vaults. There’s a highlight reel of her childhood fame, including Frye smiling in a TV ad for raisins and schmoozing with Joan Rivers, Nancy Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Andy Gibb. There’s even a clip from everybody’s favorite Punky Brewster episode, the one where Buzz Aldrin visits to heal her grief over the 1986 Challenger explosion.
For a junkie of early Nineties pop culture, Kid 90 is definitely a trip down memory lane. Frye was carrying her camera before social media or the internet boom, so nobody worries about getting filmed while they party, booze it up, do drugs. She likes to ask her friends about their philosophy of life, so we get the pensées of Emmanuel Lewis and Michael Rappaport and Corey Feldman. She waxes poetic about her romance with Danny Boy O’Connor — you know, the second-most famous rapper from House of Pain, during the “Jump Around” era. We see a page from her teen diary, for the momentous day when Mark Wahlberg calls her. She draws hearts around his name.
But like virtually all her fellow kid stars from the Reagan era, she didn’t make the move into adult stardom. As soon as Punky got cancelled, her career came to a crashing halt, and that’s really where the story begins — none of these kids are equipped to handle the rejection and failure of show biz. For Frye, it was complicated by her body-image issues; she was still young enough to be going to summer camp when the mean kids started calling her “Punky Boobster.” There’s an infuriating scene of a guest appearance on The Wonder Years, with Fred Savage — and the adults behind the camera — ogling her chest. She had breast reduction surgery at 15, one of the first celebrities to go public about this experience.
As she points out in the movie, nobody really wants to see kiddie stars grow up. She films her teen self talking about what she wants to achieve next, to the sound of Liz Phair’s “Mesmerizing.” But that goes right into footage of her roles in cheesy flicks like Pumpkinhead 2: Blood Wings and the TV remake of Piranha. She finally heads to New York to learn her craft at the Actors Studio, confessing, “I wanted to be taken seriously.”
The story gets incredibly grim. She details her horrifying experience of being sexually assaulted as a teenager, by an older actor she’d loved and trusted. She also includes footage of her many old friends who ended up killing themselves, whether by drugs or suicide, from SeaQuest’s Jonathan Brandis to porn actress Shannon Willsey. There’s a roll call of her dead friends at the end, set to the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.”
But Frye is more comfortable depicting the goofy kid she used to be. She reads from her teen diary (with James Dean on the cover), with a poem she wrote about turning 13 called “Lost Angels.” There’s a phone call with Joey Lawrence about visiting her in the hospital after her surgery. She saves the funniest footage for the closing credits: a startlingly young Leonardo DiCaprio brags about how Frye has been filming him for two years. “This is her little document of my growth. I’ve grown at least 3 inches, 4 inches. And I’m bigger, too!” When she shows some of her footage to Perry Farrell, he winces at his Jane’s Addiction fashion choices. “There’s the rainbow shirt, yeah,” he groans. “I was scared you were gonna pull up that rainbow jacket. Okay, it is what it is.”
Frye keeps stressing that she was one child star who never felt pushed in front of the camera, and has nothing but fond words for her stage mom and her mostly absentee dad, the actor Virgil Frye. (Her previous documentary Sonny Boy was about their relationship at the sad end of his life.) But it’s clear that getting famous was a disaster that she’s still recovering from. Her old friends have similar damage — if they’re still alive. Adolescence and stardom come across as a traumatic combination. It wounded these kids for life.