Long before iPhone-addicted Gen Z kids and millennials were documenting every moment of their lives on TikTok and Instagram, former child star Soleil Moon Frye was obsessively chronicling her post-Punky Brewster life via her ever-present camcorder. “From the time I was 5 years old I carried a diary, and then at 12 years old, I was given an audio recorder. And then by the time I reached my teen years, I was holding a video camera. And I really feel like something inside of me, inside of that little girl, kept a blueprint, a chronological blueprint, as almost a roadmap for my adult self to come back home to, in a way,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment.
Now that raw, previously unseen footage comprises Kid 90, Frye’s fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking documentary about growing up in Hollywood, which premieres this week on Hulu. Long-lost VHS and answering-machine recordings of peers that the actress has since lost to suicide or addiction, like troubled teen heartthrob Jonathan Brandis and Kids movie star Justin Pierce, make for especially intense viewing, as Frye, now age 44, examines her wild ‘90s life through a 2021 mental-health lens. Her fellow ‘90s survivors, from David Arquette and Brian Austin Green to Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell and Frye’s ex-boyfriend, House of Pain rapper Danny Boy O'Connor, also weigh in.
Frye has spent “years, frame by frame” in the edit bay working on Kid 90 — no doubt experiencing multiple “there but for the grace of God go I” epiphanies, and twinges of survivor’s guilt, as she revisits those lost recordings of her fallen friends. She cites her “incredible family” for giving her the “amazing grounding” and “sense of self” that kept her from becoming yet another Hollywood tragedy. But now that her ambitious film is completed, she muses, her eyes misting over: “I think David Arquette says it so beautifully [in Kid 90], that the world can feel very painful. And I look at someone like my dear friend Jonathan Brandis, who I love so much, and I was talking to his parents the other night, and they loved him so much and they love him so much. And so, sometimes even with all that love around us, there's just that pain. And I think one of the things that was so hard to process was the fact that the teen me didn't always see what was going on, in the pain of the people around me. And I think that is the same thing that goes on today, which is like: How often do we really look at each other and say, ‘How are you?’ and really mean it? … That's one reason I locked away the tapes for so long. On a subconscious level, I wasn't ready to deal with the pain.”
Frye revisited many fond memories during the making of Kid 90, including a rambling late-night answering-machine message from Brandis — which she describes a “found treasure” — in which he revealed that he had a crush on her. “He would leave a 15-, 20-minute message, because he was determined to use all the tape on the machine,” she chuckles. “And when I listened to them all, the last minute is him confessing his true feelings — because he knew that I probably would never get to the last minute of the message. And so hearing the moment where he's like, ‘I love her! I've always loved her!’ … it was like these blinders coming off. Because I was like, ‘If this is the example of how loved I was and I didn't see it, then there's so many other people in the world that probably don't see the ways in which they're loved.’”
Another recorded phone conversation that was unarchived for Kid 90 brought back less pleasant memories. The disturbing recording, in which the mystery man on the other end of the line has his voice disguised, depicts Frye trying to piece together what happened on a night when she blacked out. The implication is that she may have been drugged, or taken advantage of sexually, and the adult Frye tears up onscreen as she reads aloud a diary entry from around that same time, still piecing to make sense of it all.
“There's things that I had blocked out, and things that I hadn't dealt with,” Frye admits to Yahoo. “I had some memories — none of these people that were in the film, but I had a group of friends that I thought were my good friends, and then we'd hang out. I looked back and I was like, ‘Well, I kind of remember drinking some ginger ale, but then not feeling the same after. … Wait, was I on a door with a front doorstep? And then I remember waking up in a room that wasn't mine?’ So, there was things that I had blocked out, and they're fuzzy. I'm still processing it, because I still don't have full memories of what had happened. What was mind-blowing was then finding a tape where the teenager in me, who still felt like these were my friends, was going, ‘What happened? … I know I didn't drink!’ And they're like, ‘Yes, you did.’ And I'm like, ‘No, I didn't.’ The questions that that brought up certainly was incredibly painful.
"And to be very clear, there was multiple experiences. This wasn't like one. There was a few experiences that were not so positive,” Soleil adds grimly, though she doesn’t elaborate. “But the biggest thing that came out of [examining all this in Kid 90] was not about the who's and the what’s. It was about forgiving the little girl who felt shame, or felt like I had to bury it all away.”
On the subject of shame, Kid 90 also delves into the body-shaming and objectification Frye endured during her post-Punky puberty years, when her breasts developed at a rapid rate and the media made cruel jokes, even nicknaming her “Punky Boobster.” The 5-foot-1 actress eventually decided to undergo breast reduction surgery, from a 38DD to a 36C, before she was even 16 years old, and she was quite vocal about the procedure, discussing it on the talk-show circuit and in a People cover story back when such openness was almost unheard-of. “I definitely went through it as a teen — that feeling of grown men looking at me in a different way, and also the insecurity that I started to feel,” recalls Frye. “And so really for me, I felt like [going public about the surgery] was really important for my own sense of self — I really felt like I was going to make this transition and that I was so righteous, in a way.”
Now that Frye is a mother of two teen girls — who have both watched Kid 90 — all of these memories are even more intense for Frye, especially the film’s body-issue scenes. “Sharing the documentary with [my daughters] was really a way of us having this open dialogue and conversation,” she says. “To have experienced what I went through developing as a teenager, and now to magnify that with social media and what is going on with the way in which people belittle each other… to make teenagers going through puberty feel so badly about themselves is really horrifying.”
Now that Kid 90 is completed, and Frye has children who are the same age that she was when she first picked up a video camera, Frye feels a sense of closure — but also a sense of rebirth, knowing that her documentary will open up many conversations about mental health, consent, and body image, along with bringing back all those nostalgic ‘90s memories. “It's been a process. Of course it's been my whole lifetime, but it's been years in the making,” she says. “And I'm so grateful, because it has been this rediscovery of self — of who I once was, and who I really am.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jason Fitzpatrick