Soleil Moon Frye was shooting viral videos before there were social media landing spots for the material to go viral.
A few years after the cancellation of “Punky Brewster,” as Frye was making the difficult and sometimes painful transition from adorable and famous child star to struggling adolescent and teen actress, she started a video and written diary of her life and times.
Those rough and raw and honest and funny and sometimes heartbreakingly real video snippets are featured prominently in “kid 90,” a Hulu documentary directed by and starring Frye, who, at 44, talks with great candor and wisdom about riding an emotional rollercoaster in the 1990s and reconnects with a number of her peers from those days, including David Arquette, Stephen Dorff, Brian Austin Green and Danny Boy O’Connor of House of Pain (“Jump Around”).
Equal parts video autobiography and unvarnished documentary, “kid 90” kicks off with archival footage of Frye as a little girl on “Punky Brewster” and a reminder of just how famous she became in just a few short years.
Cut to the early 1990s, post-“Punky,” and a rapidly maturing Frye, just entering her teens, is cast as the object of desire in guest spots on shows such as “The Wonder Years” and “Saved by the Bell,” ogled by grown talk-show hosts and made the butt of jokes, with people calling her “Punky Boobster.” (Again: She was 13.)
“I was getting all t--- and a- - roles, and I’m 13,” Frye recalls. “I went from living this amazing childhood to almost being forced into adulthood.”
Around this time, Frye started taking her portable home video camera with her nearly everywhere, this at a time it was still such a novelty that her fellow actor friends expressed amazement as she pointed the camera at them. (“What is that, how can you see me in that thing?” says a young Mark McGrath.)
There’s even footage of Frye and her family at the hospital just before she underwent breast-reduction surgery at 15.
Frye made the talk-show circuit and shared her plastic surgery experiences in a cover story for People magazine in a noble effort to enlighten the public and help other girls who had developed early.
Meantime, she was having the normal teenage experiences of crushes and flirting and being silly with friends and experimenting with getting high — the difference being that her friends were Leonardo DiCaprio and Jenny Lewis and Sara Gilbert and Joey Lawrence and Charlie Sheen, and she had the camera rolling much of the time.
Some of the footage is tedious despite the celebrity quotient. Frye and friends find each other hilarious when they’re tripping and acting like the silly teenagers they are, but there’s no great insight to be gleaned from watching those moments in present day.
More poignant are the slices of video life featuring Jonathan Brandis (“seaQuest DSV”), Rodney Harvey (“My Own Private Idaho”), Shannon “Savannah” Wilsey, songwriter Andrew Dorff and “Kids” stars Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce — none of whom survived, most succumbing to addiction or suicide.
When the likes of Arquette and Dorff talk about the old days and sometimes cringe, you sense a definite feeling on their part of: “There but for the grace of God…”
“Kid90” chronicles Frye’s underwhelming career after “Punky,” with roles in B- and C-movies such as “Piranha,” “Twisted Love” and “Pumpkinhead 2: Blood Wings,” then abruptly cuts to the present day.
We see a glimpse of Frye and two of her four children on the beach, a clip from a taping of the “Punky Brewster” reboot that premiered last month and a tender moment of Frye’s reunion with O’Connor at his home in Oklahoma.
But there’s virtually no mention of Frye’s life between the end of the 1990s and now.
It would have been nice if the 72-minute film had expanded to fill in that gap, but “Kid 90” is still a valuable and unique rewind glimpse of what it was like to be a teenage celebrity in the pre-Instagram era.