By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Of course, any given year in cinema will cough up its share of children at risk from rape, abduction, teenage pregnancy, abandonment, poverty and any other danger you can think of. What’s striking about so many of the current roster is the overwhelming prevalence of parents themselves (or their substitutes) as the enemies of children. I can think of no better expression of the terror of becoming a parent than Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up. Consider, too, The Nanny Diaries, in which Scarlett Johansson takes on the spoiled brat of Laura Linney’s wealthy iceberg of a mother (a direct descendant, only worse, of Mary Tyler Moore’s frigid bitch in Ordinary People), or the overprivileged twins Anne Hathaway ran around for in lieu of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Or the creepy son of a well-heeled, ineffectual father and a distracted mother in Joshua, this year’s contribution to the inexhaustible bad-seed subgenre. Or Lindsay Lohan — a specialist in wild and woolly lost girls whose antics in Georgia Rule mirror her offscreen acting out — as the compulsive liar fruitlessly campaigning for the attention of her alcoholic mother and abusive father while being set straight by grandma Jane Fonda, a queen bee of tough love if ever there was.
Into the Wild reads Christopher McCandless’ journey into the Alaskan wilderness as the desperate act of an innocent neglected by bitterly divided parents. In Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, it’s a tossup as to who bears greater responsibility for the emotional abandonment of a returning soldier from Iraq — the Army or his own father. Ben Affleck’s upcoming Gone Baby Gone turns on the disappearance of a little girl with a mother of, to put it charitably, decidedly mixed abilities. And there’s never a shortage of the family dramas so beloved of Sundance Film Festival audiences — movies like Stephanie Daley, in which Amber Tamblyn plays a teenager whose pregnancy goes unnoticed by distracted parents mired in marital strife, until she’s bailed out by an equally pregnant attorney, herself tortured by guilt and the fear of becoming an inadequate mother. Coming soon is Rails and Ties, a standard-issue weepie by Alison Eastwood about an adorably dimpled boy who loses one mother to suicide and another to cancer. Given this sorry crew of parental delinquents and incompetents, is it any wonder that orphan movies like the Harry Potter franchise never lose their charm?
Wherever you have studios, you have formula, but why are there virtually no independent American filmmakers making great movies for children? There’s no such dearth in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, whose cultures are at once less sentimental and less paranoid about childhood than ours, and many of whose governments still believe in supporting the arts. Brad Bird aside, my own pantheon of memorable movie kids includes only a handful of American-made ones. From the backup files of my English childhood, there’s the pinched working-class lad who finds joy in falconry in Ken Loach’s 1969 Kes, a movie that to my mind Loach has never bettered. Who could forget Anthony Newley’s resourceful Artful Dodger in David Lean’s beautiful, terrifying Oliver Twist? Or the terror and rapture of watching the wordless French tyke carried up and away in The Red Balloon, only to float back to Earth later this year as Juliette Binoche’s sensitive but practical son in Hou Hsiao Hsien’s lovely The Flight of the Red Balloon? The dark-eyed waifs observing Spain’s bloody history, from Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth to (coming in December) The Orphanage, an accomplished new horror movie by del Toro protégé Juan Antonio Bayona, are indelible. So is the determined little Muslim girl in Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon, who does nothing but trot around Tehran looking for a goldfish.
In our household, where Friday night is film night, the vote for best movie girls goes to the cranky, brave tomboys in just about every Hayao Miyazaki movie, from Kiki’s Delivery Service to My Neighbor Totoro to Spirited Away and on to Howl’s Moving Castle, all of whom get put through the mill of adversity and graduate childhood, not self-actualized or some such psychobabble, but — seasoned, older and wiser about the joys and sorrows of the world. My hope is that long after the fatuous twits of High School Musical fade from my kid’s short-term memory, she will serve up these movies for her own children’s delight.
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