My 9-year-old daughter’s interest in boys is largely confined to whether she can outrun them, and yet she has acquired a precise, if mercifully abstract, grasp of the contemporary arts of seduction. Repeated close study of the Disney Channel’s High School Musical and its identical sequel has taught her how to hike down a shoulder strap, flip back her hair, thrust her left hip forward and flutter her eyelids like Ashley Tisdale and the other interchangeable nymphs of that stupendously successful, unspeakably banal television movie. That is, when she isn’t scribbling moony ballads of her own that prominently feature the words “my lonely heart,” which she then performs for me with her customary cheery brio.
I like to think of myself as a reasonably protective parent, but unless you’re willing to banish all popular culture from your child’s life — and who wants to discourage schoolyard analysis of Homer Simpson’s latest flub or the newest crisis at Bikini Bottom? — there’s no escaping this stuff. Looking up from my book on a flight home from London earlier this year, I caught my kid practically taking notes on the final sequence of Little Miss Sunshine, in which plump little Abigail Breslin does a raunchy striptease taught her by her late, loving granddad the heroin addict, thus prompting a walkout by all the parental hypocrites who have just clapped themselves silly for their own hideously overdressed, hypersexualized JonBenet clonelets.
Like most kids her age, my daughter hasn’t yet mastered irony, parody or discrimination. To her, the anxious maternal question “What did you think of it?” is beside the point. It’s a movie; she loves it, just as she loved the delightful Finding Nemo, both terrific versions of Freaky Friday and (blech) Bratz. Like Breslin’s character, she has no idea, beyond the instinctive sensuality of all children, that what she’s doing is dirty dancing. But in the wee small hours, I fret about what she’s filing away for tomorrow.
As for me, I’m all for that scene in Little Miss Sunshine, not just because it’s so damn funny, but because I can’t think of a moment in contemporary American cinema that catches more aptly the weirdly schizoid attitudes of parents (and those who market to them and their children) about what it means to be a child today. And lest you dismiss the scene as far-fetched, the main attraction at an event at my daughter’s Westside public elementary school last year was a writhing, simpering, come-hither go-go dance number by little girls in clingy leotards. I’m not sure which show was more pornographic — the one onstage or the one below, filled with wildly clapping, cheering, videotaping moms and dads. You know, the same parents who banish all sugar and high-fructose corn syrup from their offspring’s lunch boxes, who show up faithfully to school revues, only to twiddle their BlackBerrys throughout, and who zealously check the MPAA rating of every children’s movie in order to shield their precious charges from all possible sleaze or fright factors.
Looking at those movies, most of them soaked to the gills in cute, might actually make you long for a bit of raunch, or for the nastiness of a Todd Solondz supernerd, the creeped-out kids of an Atom Egoyan movie, or just a good old bad seed. (I draw the line at Larry Clark, child pornographer.) Hollywood prides itself on “knowing” what parents want, and the torrent of animated kids’ movies rushed out since those in the executive suites discovered they make more money than action pictures (even the hallowed BBC Films just announced that it’s going family) mostly pander to limo-liberal family values based on what one waggish sociologist calls “the horticultural view of the child” as a fragile plant whose self-esteem must be constantly fed and watered. Wherever you turn, a child comes thinly disguised as a fledgling furry friend — clown fish, piglet, rat, raccoon. Much as I enjoyed Happy Feet, if I never see another artistically inclined bloody penguin, it won’t be too soon. And in the ancient fairy-tale opening gambit now so overused in movies that kids casually accept it without noticeable grief, Mom is dead or gone, leaving the field open for wimpy “adventures” and unimpeachable life lessons in growing up honest, upright and green.
I don’t mean to be cynical: I regularly ferry squadrons of tweens to sweet, beautifully crafted kid pics — the first two Shreks, Over the Hedge, both Ice Age movies, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, to name but a few — from which we all came home happy. But happy in itself is a poor excuse for art. The overwhelming majority of these smiley-faced products of CGI wizardry offer generically cute kids with generic problems creaking toward predictable solutions and programmatic self-actualization.
One clear exception is the brilliant Brad Bird, who’s responsible for creating two of the most sharply drawn teenage geeks in American cinema — monosyllabic Violet, hiding behind her hair in The Incredibles, and the gawky restaurant garbage boy Linguini in Ratatouille — both of whom grow up by taking risks and becoming courageous and competent in a difficult world. Because his superbly animated movies make a mint, Bird has been able to survive in a children’s cinema virtually monopolized by studios where, thematically, every last picture boils down to AFOG — Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth. The children in studio movies are terminally cute role-models-in-training who lack all specificity or the rich idiosyncrasies of individual experience. And beyond a flashy act of redeeming heroism in the third act, little is expected of them other than to look sad, then look happy.
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.
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.