Maybe it’s all thanks to painful childhood memories of suffering through Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World as a 13-year-old Kevin Costner fan (really), but when faced with certain kinds of kids in certain kinds of movies (or sometimes in real life, when they’re not really little kids but little monsters), Retro Remote is mighty tempted to echo W.C. Fields’ approach to tykes, delivering a quick boot to the rear:
Metaphorically speaking, that is. Every now and then a child star or two skips past the pre-teen demographic and is pushed onto mainstream screens; just in the last couple of years, young Hailee Steinfeld got plenty of attention and also picked up an Academy Award nomination for her role in the Coen Brothers’ 2010 version of True Grit, and child actors Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Mortez helped hold together Martin Scorsese’s multi-award-winning Hugo (2011).
These kid-based movies made critics giddy with praise, so Retro Remote tends to get plenty of flak for being generally underwhelmed by both films. Maybe the indifferent reaction was just because of that underlying desire to tell those movie kids to get off of my lawn and go play in traffic, but on reflection, Retro Remote found plenty of kid-based movies stored away in his mental (and well-respected and highly sought-after) “worthwhile stuff” list.
What sets these select few apart from films like Hugo and the Coens’ True Grit seems to be the fact that they all treat kids as, well, kids. Precocious cherubs and wise-beyond-their-years savants seem to be a Hollywood staple, but they don’t really reflect that weird, ill-defined, almost-makes-sense state of actually being a child. Rather than delving into that odd state of pre-adult consciousness, mainstream cinema is often content simply to repackage its generic adult heroes in smaller forms.
Really, a kid is a weird thing to be. Negotiating the endless rush of new, often disruptive information and the rapid and often unwelcome entry into the adult world is something that art has always struggled to recapture. The result may be a gentle “stay gold”-style nostalgia, but when done well there’s also an unavoidable confrontation with real-world complexities and ego-crushing truths that many still grapple with in their adult lives and that – if popular culture is anything to go by – many adults never even come close to making terms with. (How many supposedly adult stories still just repackage basic adolescent dilemmas? Too many…)
Hugo and True Grit aren’t really examples of films that deal with children badly – they’re actually pretty good! (Retro Remote’s more detailed criticisms can wait for another misanthropic day….) But let’s not forget that there’s a whole genre of childhood films out there that are worth remembering. As seems to be customary, mainstream film culture (over-)praises its present by conveniently ignoring its past.
Retro Remote thought he’d struggle to come up with a list of five good examples of kid-based films, but plenty of options emerged without too much fuss. So, these are the potentially lesser-known examples: no 400 Blows (1959), Zero de Conduite (1933), The Red Balloon (1956), Germany Year Zero (1948) or Night of the Hunter (1955) this time, unfortunately. Also, the list has been limited to movies about kids, bypassing some of the great mid- to late-teen movies like Bad Company (1972) and Rumble Fish (1983). “Memoir” type films like My Father’s Glory (1990) and Jacquot de Nantes (1991) have also been callously bumped from the list.
Instead, the selected films are also all essentially “western” in that they offer a relatively unproblematic European-style environment for childhood experiences, or even simply in that they allow for the idea of a “childhood” at all. It’s difficult to fairly compare narrative-heavy and personal-drama based films like Hugo to representations of real-life childhood powerlessness and wartime trauma, as in films like In This World (2002) or Khoa Do’s Mother Fish aka Missing Water (2009).
So, in the spirit of some great and forgotten films of the “go play in traffic” genre, here are a five good, great, or just interesting films that capture that weird state of being a kid far more effectively than some of the more highly praised “kid” films of recent times.
#5: The Spanish Gardener
(1956), Dir. Philip Leacock
A quiet and generally unassuming film, Philip Leacock’s The Spanish Gardener (1956, based on the 1950 novel by A. J. Cronin) is no classic, but it’s a solid, simple film worth remembering not only for Dirk Bogarde’s presence as Jose (the gardener of the title) but also for its straightforward representation of a childhood almost impossibly oblivious to class distinctions and the stultifying neuroses of the adult figures who would act as guides into adulthood. The well-worn story relies on a split between two father-figures: the stuffy and over-protective single father (Michael Hordern) who offers a traditional, restrained, and bureaucratic upbringing, and the young and poor Spanish Gardener (Bogarde) who offers the boy a more earthy, active and unaffected perspective on the world.
Even if the story and character split are too well-worn to be entirely interesting in themselves and Bogarde’s Jose is a bit too much of a saintly peasant figure in his endless poise under persecution, the sincerity and unassuming nature of the presentation gives the impetus towards possible tragedy an extra kick. This is partly because the young boy Nico (Jon Whitely, who previous co-starred with Bogarde in 1952’s Hunted) is such a simple-minded dope, who can’t understand even for a moment why his father would feel so compelled to keep him away from the gardener (modern audiences can of course think of plenty of other good reasons to keep Nico away from the gardener – nowdays it might seem like pretty good advice).
Such obliviousness is perhaps more truly recognisable than the childish “wisdom” that screen-kids tend to exhibit when convenient; the father may be forced to face some of his own problems, but this revelation isn’t something that his son can deliver with some kind of impossibly pithy insight into the state of their relationship. Though central to the story, Nico always remains a pawn in his father’s own battle with his self-image, and whatever traumas Nico might be forced to suffer always remain – frighteningly – almost entirely out of his hands.
#4: The Yellow Balloon
(1953), Dir. J. Lee Thompson
J. Lee Thompson will always have a place in Retro Remote’s heart for his final films with Charles Bronson (many of them surprisingly fun and underrated – a topic for another time), but before he ended up in the “cranky old guy with a gun” production line, Thompson had a reasonably varied directing career in the UK beginning with Murder Without Crime in 1950 and perhaps peaking in popularity with The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Cape Fear (1962) in the US.
His second film, in 1953, was The Yellow Balloon, a simple and quietly affecting thriller. As he would do with some of his later Bronson films, Thompson keeps what could be unremarkable generic material firm and focused, eschewing sentimentality and letting confronting events and circumstances speak more or less for themselves.
What gives a fairly standard blackmail plot an extra punch, is the fact that it’s a young boy, Frankie (Andrew Ray), who finds himself at the centre, having inadvertently caused the death of another young boy. As a result, the blackmailer’s (William Sylvester) manipulations take on an extra level of deviousness, not only manipulating the child, but also forcing layers of guilt as he places the blame on him and manipulates him into petty theft from his parents; Frankie is simply too young to realise that he’s not at fault and has nothing to hide.
At around 13 when the film was made, Ray seems a lot younger in his demeanour, especially given the recent tendency to make children appear much older and wiser on screen than in real life. In fact, Frankie’s general confusion and inability to seek help or articulate his situation seems far more uncomfortably representative of childhood trauma and encounters with manipulative adults.
When Thompson leads us to his soon-to-be-familiar action-mode in a Third Man -style underground chase, we’re not asked to believe that there’s anything at stake other than a scared kid, whose only goal is to make it back home and who, as usual, never has a real sense of what’s been going on.
#3: Tiger Bay
(1959), Dir. J. Lee Thompson
Perhaps surprisingly, Charles-Bronson-artiste Thompson helmed another sensitive portrayal of a child caught up in an adult world. This time it’s 12-year-old Gillie, played by fondly-remembered child actor Hayley Mills.
Tiger Bay is something of a half-masterpiece; Thompson gives the first half of the film a rich, noir-ish style as the story drifts between “tomboy” Gillie and a returning seaman (Horst Buchholz in his first English language film) who returns home to find his girlfriend shacked up with another man. When Gillie witnesses the girl’s murder, she’s suddenly in the killer’s targets; not because she’s a saintly childhood do-gooder, but mainly because she’s pilfered the murder weapon in an attempt to impress the other kids in their regular war games.
This wonderfully familiar state of childhood amorality (Gillie couldn’t care less that the girl has been killed as long as she gets to keep the gun) is further emphasised by Thompson as Gillie rushes off to church, obediently singing in the choir while at the same time showing off her new prize under the pews. When the entry of the killer into the church causes her to stop her solo dead, it’s one of those wonderful Hitchcock-style moments where a dramatic and potentially dangerous encounter takes place in the midst of an oblivious public.
Dragged along with the killer (apparently an essentially good guy who’s just looking to keep her from the police until he can escape to sea), the two bond (natch) but without it ever veering into some creepy pseudo-sexual relationship as in Luc Besson’s enjoyable but uncomfortable Leon: The Professional (1994). A hint of an underlying relationship theme is hinted as Gillie runs (from her rescuers, not her captor) and is momentarily stunned by the sight of a couple kissing, but her stunned look serves primarily to make clear that whatever bond has been formed, it’s certainly not intended to have sexual or romantic undertones.
Perhaps fittingly, Tiger Bay loses its tense atmosphere once it stops focusing on Gillie and shifts to the police investigation headed by Superintendent Graham – played by Hayley’s real-life father John Mills. Forcing this weird and doomed noir-ish alliance into a standard police thriller (John spends a fair amount of time lecturing young Hayley), Thompson’s taut focus suddenly lapses into overdone dramatics and a series of twists and turns that take us away from Gillie’s cluttered and complex perspective and force us to watch her as simply a cog in the straightforward investigation storyline.
With an uncomplicated vision of police righteousness, there’s no room to explore the uncomfortable gap between the childhood and adult perspectives, and the film ends up layering on all kinds of needless turns to contrive to both send the killer to jail and also somehow make us feel good about it. The result is, of course, thoroughly unconvincing – a cheap sidestepping of the childhood mentality that would happily see a “nice” murderer escape to freedom. Still, though Tiger Bay throws it all away in its generic final half, the early scenes with Mills as a poor and recognisably amoral child hint at a great film that almost breaks through.
Negotiating Between the Worlds of Childhood and Adulthood
#2: High Wind in Jamaica
(1965), Dir. Alexander Mackendrick
Kids meet pirates sounds like the worst holiday season multiplex movie of all time (and probably has been), but Alexander Mackendrick’s 1965 adaptation of Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel sees a childhood journey diverted into an odd captivity on a ship with a bunch of unwashed ruffians. Though High Wind in Jamaica doesn’t force themes or messages, the underlying resonance with the journey from childhood to the adult world remains perfectly clear, with the excursion into the lawless pirate world erupting unexpectedly from the strictures of a controlled, rule-bound trip.
While the kids presence on the boat may warm a few old pirates’ hearts, we’re not delivered a trite “the exuberance of children redeems a cranky old man with a secret heart of gold” story (see Scorsese’s surprisingly simplistic Hugo for that…). The pirates enjoy the extra level of chaos that the children bring, so that the ultimate attachment formed seems unforced but, whatever the connection, there’s never the sense that the kids are running the ship, and the bond between some simply reinforces the notion that the children (including a young teenage girl) are only a hairs breadth away from real violence. Importantly, the story isn’t foolish enough to pretend that violence and looming crises can simply be averted by storybook childhood innocence.
Featuring children in key but largely powerless roles allows High Wind in Jamaica to bypass any real eye-rolling moments of precocious wisdom; the children are never operating on anything other than childhood logic, aware of general danger but completely oblivious to the reality of the situation they find themselves in.
Most powerfully, High Wind in Jamaica doesn’t take the easy road of letting it all come together into a moment of character growth or kid-power resolution. In the film’s finale, the full impact of childhood’s obliviousness and insularity emerges with devastating power: essentially the opposite of the handy resolution of Tiger Bay. High Wind in Jamaica doesn’t simply chronicle a childhood experience, it forces us to face an experience through the eyes of a child: where important details mean so much less that they need to, and where the full impact of what has taken place can only be evaluated with adult awareness once it’s far too late to solve any of the problems.
The conclusion is painfully real. In High Wind in Jamaica, children may seem to offer redemption, but only unwittingly: when they’re needed the most, they’re ultimately shown to be just kids, unable to offer anything.
#1: True Grit
(1969), Dir. Henry Hathaway
I wonder how many of those who praised the Coen’s Brothers True Grit with a derisive swipe at the earlier John Wayne version actually saw (or recently re-watched) Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film. A charming, funny, colourful and exciting film, the 1969 version may have that “1960s Western” vibe, but the Coen Brothers are no less pandering to their audiences’ contemporary requirements, giving their version a predictably smug, grey, snow-ridden, nihilistic 2010s bleakness that somehow automatically characterises “seriousness” in a Western.
For modern audiences chained to monotonous notions of realism (“another word for artifice” as David Bordwell puts it ), this really just represents a timidity at exploring the full range of cinema’s palette rather than a real engagement with serious issues or confrontational cinema. Despite the “reimagining” label that’s conveniently added to modern remakes (the level of sarcasm varying depending on how much we like the film), much of the Coens’ version can be seen almost unchanged in the earlier film – in fact, strong dialogue scenes tend to run for a bit longer and with a more varied humour in the earlier version.
The Coens’ version got a lot of praise for Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, only 13 when she took the role, but her age (counter-intuitively, perhaps) does inhibit the range of her performance of a child compared to the nuances of Kim Darby’s 1969 Mattie. While Steinfeld is essentially limited to a small set of emotional traits that are exhibited independently of each other (frown, pout, look happy, look upset, look stern…), Darby seems to be in a constant state of emotional and mental activity, as though in an never-ending flurry of inner negotiation with herself as she simultaneously negotiates with the outside adult world.
That fact that Darby’s Mattie seems always aware that she’s really out of her depth (as opposed to Steinfeld’s simple determined pout) makes her endless persistence all the more powerful; her form insistence is usually tempered with a solid dose of fear and uncertainty. Darby was 21 when she played the 14-year-old Mattie, and while this may be an issue for literal-minded audiences, it allows the film to artistically represent childhood (i.e., performance) rather than simply presenting a literal image of it (i.e., an actual child).
Over at the excellent Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian provides some good commentary on Mattie’s limited emotional range in the 2010 version, though offhandedly dismisses Darby’s more interesting and textured earlier portrayal due to her age. (See “True Grit, Mattie Ross and Feminism?, 09 March 2011)
Perhaps no scene sums up the difference between the two versions of Mattie than when she claims her horse, Little Blackie. Both films essentially use the same dialogue, but the 1969 usually finds a little more to play with. Where the 2010 version sees Mattie pleased with her horse and claim it with the simple precocious determination she’s so far exhibited, Darby’s Mattie seems scarcely able to contain her excitement even as she stifles it under the weight of her own self-imposed seriousness. When she names the horse, she isn’t just claiming with rugged determination, but summoning it as some kind of storybook companion to take her on her adult journey. Steinfeld’s Mattie pretends to be a grown-up until she isn’t anymore; Darby, caught somewhere between the world of a child and adult, narrates her own journey to herself (and her horse) and never lets us know just where she is on the spectrum between child and adult.
This uncertainty plays out wonderfully in a concluding scene that could so easily have lapsed into a stupid joke if the film wasn’t so aware of it’s underlying “true trit” theme. Having threatened to sic her attorney on Rooster Cogburn for the whole film, the lawyer arrives as (predictably) a small, weak-looking man with spectacles (wonderful character and voice actor John Fiedler). Rather than leaving it at this “surprise”, Wayne’s Cogburn and the lawyer get to have a quick exchange, betting on whether or not Mattie will pull through the serious injuries she’s suffering. The scene ends as the canny attorney laughs off the suggestion; neither of these men is foolish enough to bet against Mattie, and it’s a nice moment where all three characters are united in a position of strength and shared awareness. It’s a small validation of the diminutive attorney’s own “grit” – as well as Rooster’s and Mattie’s – despite the extreme differences in all of their characters.
In a sense, that’s what lifts the 1969 True Grit into such a wonderful film. Sarkeesian criticises the lack of a character arc for Mattie in the 2010 version, but really this is just a clumsy replication of something special about the 1969 version. The 1969 film isn’t about how Mattie, a naïve young girl, develops “true grit” by hanging around the tough Rooster Cogburn. Rather, it’s about how Mattie’s own brand of childish innocence mixed with determination, and her prissy yet warm femininity are – and always were – worthy of the label “true grit”. We come to appreciate the characters’ own existing values, rather than watching them to change into something else (Hollywood’s constant leveling process). It’s something akin to James L. Brooks’ excellent Broadcast News (1987), where we’re expected to change how we feel about the characters as we progress through the film rather than having the characters change into something that will supposedly please us.
Where the Coens end on a bleak, hip nihilism, it’s this downer ending that seems forced (even if it’s more true to the source novel). An endorsement of all kinds of “grit”, Hathaway’s celebratory ending validates Mattie’s odd blend of childishness, femininity and toughness and integrates it lovingly into the John Wayne’s macho-centric West.
Like all lists, it’s pointless to really sell the entries as the “best” films on the topic – rather they’re just a list of films that might be worth remembering in the general rush to praise films like Scorsese’s Hugo and the Coen brothers’ True Grit. What the films above all seem to have in common – and what makes the kids all less obnoxious than so many of the on-screen tykes we’re forced to endure – is the underlying awareness that it might take more than a little plucky courage to get through a tough situation, and that kids aren’t just adults in miniature. Instead of having kids as central motivators in these films, they seem to remember that it’s a tough world out there, generally indifferent to strangers, and that the beliefs and values of childhood don’t necessarily transfer easily or naturally to the complexities of the adult world. For every charming trait these kids have, there’s a drawback, and real independence in the adult world is as illusory for them as it remains for us.