Miles Scott had one wish: After battling leukemia for over three years, the five-year-old wanted to be Batman for a day. And so, Make-A-Wish partnered with the city of San Francisco to stage a series of capers through which Scott saved Gotham City.
The story turned into a documentary, Batkid Begins, by director Dana Nachman. "For his parents, this was the end of a horrible chapter," she says. "And for Miles, it was an amazing day."
Batkid Begins joins two other independent movies out this month that explore the topic of teens and kids using film and pop culture to cope with traumatic experiences. The Wolfpack tells the story of six teenage brothers who acted out movies in their New York City apartment after being locked inside for most of their lives. And in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, two boys make their own film to express their feelings about a friend who's been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Lucy Rimalower, an L.A.-based psychotherapist who specializes in working with adolescents, says that this type of role-playing can kick in when our usual coping mechanisms are overwhelmed — typically, she says, when we're faced with "death or the threat of death."
"If, in our own bodies, we aren't able to manage or protect ourselves from danger, imagining ourselves in someone else's body — perhaps someone bigger, stronger, faster or superhuman — can give our brains a break," she says, "and allow us to feel something better, or at least different."
For the subjects of Batkid Begins and The Wolfpack, that meant seeking out characters who were able to do what those kids were not. During his treatment, Scott watched the 1960s Batman TV show with his dad. "[Miles] really related to the good conquers evil," says Nachman. "Whether consciously or subconsciously, he really took that on."
Scott was also staring down a reality that most kids his age never have to consider. "Here's a little boy who's facing a potentially terminal illness that completely disrupts the expected cycle of life, which, at such a young age, he's just beginning to make sense of," says Rimalower, who conducts workshops for teens on the influence of media and social media. "Role-playing Batman, his declared hero, might have allowed him to feel a sense of a battle he can win."
Plus, she says, Batman is just a man — albeit a man with very cool gadgets and toys. "Maybe Batman felt more attainable than Superman," she adds.
In the documentary The Wolfpack, the Angulo brothers faced a hugely different set of circumstances. For most of their lives, their father had kept them locked in their home, homeschooling them and taking them outside only once a year, if that. Like Scott, the boys needed to use their imaginations to get relief from the pain of their reality.
When director Crystal Moselle discovered them, they were walking down the streets of New York, having broken free of their dad's prison — and they were dressed loosely like characters out of Reservoir Dogs. She ran after them.
"There is something about them that is so magnetic," she says. "They were totally different than anyone...There was something about them that was very hip and cool. They understood that [coolness] through the movies and their characters."
Their desire to live a full life was apparent even before they escaped physically, says Rimalower. "The pains they took to transcribe every word and action of the films they acted out," she says, "suggests their desperation for experience and their commitment to finding stimulation and joy in their tiny apartment."
Drawn to hyper-violent, visually aggressive films, much of what the Angulo brothers chose to recreate was plucked from the pulpy and gangster-loving minds of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. "It seemed to me like it was very typical of boys their age to want to gravitate to those sorts of films," says Moselle.
But given the oppressive environment in which they grew up and the values they were taught, says Rimalower, it make sense on a deeper level as well. "Their father was intensely focused on power," she says. "It's not surprising that their father's emphasis...would inform the kinds of roles they wanted to play."
For Moselle, watching how deeply films had impacted her subjects' lives was mesmerizing. "It was, like, this mash-up of these different worlds," she says. "The idea that when you go to a beach, the sand reminds them of Lawrence of Arabia...it was fascinating, but also a little heartbreaking at times."
In the fictional feature Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a teenage boy named Greg makes a movie to explore his friend Rachel's life before she succumbs to leukemia. Greg had previously made films with his best friend Earl, but most were deliberately bad parody films like Eyes Wide Butt and My Dinner With Andre the Giant. When he sets about making the movie for Rachel, he experiments for the first time with putting his heart on his sleeve, and using the medium of film as a way to explore and embody something more real, more deep.
In making Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who recently lost his father, was working through many of the same feelings. In an interview with TIME, Gomez-Rejon says, "I found [grief] too abstract to get a handle on. I thought this film would let me give it a shape...I felt I’d be putting myself back together like Greg was."
In another interview on RogerEbert.com, Gomez-Rejon adds, "I was going to make a film for [my dad] the way that Greg makes one for Rachel...It was something I was aching to do...I'd hit a wall personally, just struggling to express grief and incorporate it and move on."
All three films have been received well: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance this year, The Wolfpack won the festival's Grand Jury Prize for U.S. documentary, and Batkid Begins won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Dallas Film Festival.
Batkid Begins, though, did face pushback. Critics (including ours) suggested that the film focused too heavily on adults feeling altruistic and self-congratulatory, rather than Miles' lived experience. Some even argued that the boy didn't look like he was having fun.
But Nachman says it was just the opposite. "When Miles put on his [Batkid] suit, he was very serious," she says. "You don't see Batman walking around smiling. Batman is working. That's the game he was playing.
"He's going out," she adds, "to conquer evil."
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