Go Play in Traffic: 5 Movies About Kids That Are Better Than 'Hugo' and 'True Grit'
Precocious cherubs and wise-beyond-their-years savants are a Hollywood staple, but they don't really reflect the state of actually being a kid. Here are a five good, great, or interesting films that are far more effective in portraying that being a kid is a really weird thing to be.
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.
(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.
(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.
(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.