By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Despite the knowing subtexts designed to keep the grown-ups fed and watered, the object of most of these psychologically drippy movies (Nancy Drew, so wooden it might as well have been animated, was surely this year’s nadir) is to arrive at a benign end state in which both protagonists and audiences of all ages feel good about themselves. If you think self-regard is what life is all about, allow me to introduce you to 1957’s Old Yeller (which made such an impression on me, I can still sing the title song all the way through) and My Dog Skip (2000), two wonderful boy-and-his-dog movies that trust their troubled little heroes to confront the realities of death and change without a kindly therapist or parent substitute showing up to soothe the savage beast.
When and why did we become so neurotically split about our children? Obesity aside, Western children are physically healthier and better cared for than they’ve ever been. It’s true that tumultuous shifts in family life in the second half of the 20th century — rising divorce rates, burgeoning stepfamilies and single-parent households, dual working parents and the outsourcing of child care, the widening gap between rich and poor — have taken their toll on the mental health of some youngsters. Poverty remains the single greatest threat to the welfare of our children. But other than the re-release of Charles Burnett’s beautiful 1977 Killer of Sheep, with its lyrical portrait of kids roaming South-Central Los Angeles, I can’t remember the last movie I saw about poor American kids (setting aside Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness, which in any case ends up a rags-to-riches tale that makes everything come out right). By contrast, the documentary scene fairly seethes with films about the plight of child soldiers or AIDS orphans in Africa. A little more exposure to these might give American parents and mainstream filmmakers a sense of proportion. The best film I ever saw about children at risk remains Vitali Kanevsky’s funny, heartbreaking 1989 Freeze, Die, Come to Life, in which little ruffians of a Stalin-era Siberian mining town remake their childhoods with the materials available. Things don’t end well, yet the movie dares to show what adaptable beings children are, much more so than their endlessly worrying elders. Parental anxiety has grown exponentially as the meaning of childhood has fallen into the hands of experts, media and marketers, who have theorized it to death and redefined childhood not as a magical, difficult and richly variable experience, but as a problem to be solved. In this context, adults grow ever more unsure of their own judgment, ever more dependent on the bewildering cycle of intellectual fashions that hurtle between tough love and the only slightly less dubious self-esteem movement, and ever more likely to see their kids as extensions of their own egos or ambitions, rather than enjoy them for who they are.
Small wonder, then, that we careen so obsessively between overprotective, overpermissive, overdemanding and downright clueless. I see it in the letter to Slate magazine’s advice column from a self-described Perhaps Overly Worried Father, who wondered whether his little girl’s insistence on sleeping with a vast array of stuffed animals would make her “overly promiscuous as an adult, or at least unable to commit to a single partner.” I see it in my own loudly voiced contempt for the celebrity mags one of my daughter’s pals brings to school, even as I give in to High School Musical, largely because it’s an efficient baby sitter when I need to be at the computer. I see it in the otherwise intelligent mother who confides that she has forbidden her 7-year-old to keep secrets of any kind, for fear of not hearing about an advance from one of the sexual predators who presumably lurks under every rock in our outstandingly safe neighborhood.
I didn’t much care for Todd Field’s Little Children, which I found unwarrantedly snotty about suburbia and stay-at-home moms. But when I hear about the rabid Santa Monica mothers who recently banded together to run out of town a pedophile who had yet to do anything worse than download kiddie porn, I have to hand it to the seminal scene in that movie, in which a local child molester jumps into a public swimming pool, prompting a mad rush by parents (fresh off their own sordid affairs and perversions) to yank their kids out. The excellent documentary Capturing the Friedmans treads similar terrain in its exposé of a Long Island community’s hysterical rush to judgment of a family suspected of child molestation. American movies fairly burst with florid terrors about the vulnerability of children, or their corruption into bad seeds. Parental concern for the safety of the children is a necessary primeval instinct. But compared to the long, honorable and mostly European tradition of terrific and beautiful films about vulnerable kids — De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (just re-released in New York in a new print I hope we’ll get to see in L.A.) — American movies are bloated, masturbatory, paranoid creatures indeed.
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