FILMS

CHILD’S PLAY

Kids get serious in seven new movies about growing up

BRIAN D. JOHNSON August 16 1993
FILMS

CHILD’S PLAY

Kids get serious in seven new movies about growing up

BRIAN D. JOHNSON August 16 1993

CHILD’S PLAY

FILMS

Kids get serious in seven new movies about growing up

In the proverbial visitor from another planet tried to understand children by watching Hollywood movies, some strange conclusions might emerge. Typically, it would appear, children are: fraud artists who gorge themselves on room service (Home Alone 2); brats who subject their neighbors to sadistic torture (Dennis the Menace); pitchers who throw 100-m.p.h. fastballs (Rookie of the Year); and freedom fighters who return captive killer whales to the wild (Free Willy). Hollywood movies about kids—or at least those designed for kids—tend to be cartoonish fantasies in which youngsters run amok in the adult world. But this month, a surprising number of new films present children in a more serious light. Ranging from Searching for Bobby Fischer to The Secret Garden, they are grown-up dramas about growing up, movies about alienation and affection, competition and complicity—stories told from a child’s point of view, but with an emotional complexity that adults can appreciate. And in some cases, they are even suitable for children.

Searching for Bobby Fischer is a wonderfully engaging film about a young chess prodigy. Based on the 1988 book by American author Fred Waitzkin, it is the true (and continuing) story of his son, Josh. In casting the role, writer-director Steve Zaillian had the good sense to choose a chess wizard rather than a child actor—eight-year-old Max Pomeranc, who is one of the Top 100 U.S. contenders in his age group. Pomeranc, who has never acted before, displays a natural intuition for it.

He is surrounded by a fine cast. Joe Mantegna brings sturdy conviction to the role of Fred, the father who coaxes Josh into competition with the zeal of a Little League dad. Joan Allen portrays Bonnie, the skeptical mother. Laurence Fishbourne delivers a crackling, hyperkinetic performance as Vinnie, a speed-chess hustler in Manhattan’s Washington Square who is Josh’s first mentor. And a sublimely dyspeptic Ben Kingsley portrays Bruce, a teacher who reduces the game to an orthodox, cold-blooded work ethic.

Like chess, the movie unfolds as elegant, intimate drama, with Josh, the boyking, serenely focused at its centre and the adults manoeuvring around him. There is a lot of chess played in the film, but very few moves are clearly shown. Instead, the intricate logic of the game can be seen flickering through the boy’s eyes. And director Zaillian uses flurries of quick, tight closeups to capture the cut and thrust of chess as a physical event—like fencing. He also captures the austerity of the chess world with shadowy lighting and claustrophobic art direction—creating an atmosphere of adult rationality that finally gives way to a triumph of youthful imagination.

In Searching for Bobby Fischer, the chessboard serves as a mythic playground for a boy’s dreams. His world is urban, contemporary and interior. The Secret Garden explores a young girl’s imagination with a radically different metaphor, one rooted in the rural soil of Victorian England. The chessboard and the garden—convenient archetypes of male and female sensibilities.

Based on the 1909 classic by English author Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden is a honeysuckle-sweet fable about Mary (Kate Maberly), a little rich girl who is orphaned in India then shipped off to her uncle’s Gothic estate on the Yorkshire moors. The dour uncle (John Lynch), who has never recovered from his wife’s death, cannot bear to be at home. A tyrannical housekeeper—Maggie Smith in her Victorian-shrew mode—rules the manor in his absence.

Mary, who is lonely and petulant, finds refuge in a walled garden that her uncle had locked up after his wife’s death. With the help of a local country boy, Dickon (Andrew Knott), she brings it back to life. And, defying the housekeeper, she tries to drag her invalid cousin Colin (Heydon Prowse), who is even more spoiled than she is, into the healing sunshine.

Visually, The Secret Garden is enchanting. Working in English for the first time, with Francis Coppola as her executive producer, Agnieszka Holland conjures up a fairy-tale world of images—from the manor’s forbidding interiors to the garden’s van Gogh delirium of color. Her lens exaggerates with the

wide-eyed wonder of a child. But the script, by Caroline Thompson (The Addams Family, Edward Scissorhands), is uninspired. And the movie is saturated with so much medicinal goodness and narcotic sentiment that it induces dozy side-effects. For adults with a warm predisposition towards storybook nostalgia, The Secret Garden is a treasure trove. But it is hard to imagine children of the Nintendo Age plugging into its soft-core whimsy.

FILMS

The Secret Garden's tone marks a radical departure from Europa Europa (1991), Holland’s stark drama about a Jewish boy who masquerades as a Nazi to survive the Holocaust. But it, too, was about an orphan. And now with Olivier, Olivier, Holland pursues the theme of lost childhood once again, but from a darker perspective. Based on a true story, it is about a French rural family whose youngest child, 9-year-old Olivier (Emmanuel Morozof), goes missing. He is last seen bicycling through the fields in his red cap, bringing a lunch basket to his sick grandmother—a real-life Little Red Riding Hood. Six years later, a 15-year-old juvenile delinquent (Grégoire Colin) turns up who appears to be the lost boy. Olivier’s relieved parents and sullen, disbelieving sister take him in. The story, roiling with undercurrents of incest, follows a compelling course to a dire and chilling conclusion. Definitely not for children.

King of the Hill is another tale of family separation. But, based on the memoirs of American author A E. Hotchner, it is an unadorned coming-of-age story set in the Depression: Home Alone meets Grapes of Wrath. Aaron Gesse Bradford) is a bright, virtuous 12-year-old who is left to fend for himself. His mother (Lisa Eichhorn) disappears into a sanatorium. His father Qeroen Krabbe), a hapless salesman, hits the road. And Aaron struggles to survive alone in a seedy St. Louis hotel, while inventing glamorous alibis for himself at school. Writer-director Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape) affects a plain, spartan realism, but it seems flat. Despite Bradford’s arresting lead performance, King of the Hill never comes alive: a childhood memoir frozen in amber.

Herman, a film by Norwegian director Erik Gustavson, looks at childhood alienation from a more oblique angle. Based on a best-selling novel by Lars Saabye Christensen, it is the tale of an 11-year-old boy who goes bald. (The Peanut Butter Solution, a 1985 Quebec movie, took the same premise in a very different direction.) Baldness forces Herman (Anders Danielson Lie), a shy boy who has trouble fitting in, to give up on conformism and come to terms with maturity. An oddly subdued drama with a thin comic edge, Herman is no more ambitious than its introverted hero. But it has a curious charm.

And it is certainly preferable to That Night, an artless, ill-conceived concoction about a young girl’s rite of passage. Curdled with nostalgia, That Night is set in the summer of 1961. Ten-year-old Alice (Eliza Dushku) idolizes the girl next door, a boycrazy teenager named Sheryl (Juliette Lewis). When Sheryl falls for Rick (C. Thomas Howell), a greaser from the wrong side of town, Aice plays voyeur, then matchmaker. The movie starts out as half-baked comedy and congeals into hard-baked melodrama, with Aice delivering narration through it all like an insufferable tour guide. Childish and adolescent, That Night combines the worst of both worlds.

Children in movies are often vehicles for mawkish sentiment and patronizing humor. But under the right conditions, nothing can galvanize emotion like a natural performance by a child. Mel Gibson has staked his directing debut,

The Man Without a Face, on that elusive magic. The movie (opening Aug. 25) stars 12-year-old Nick Stahl as a boy who forms a troubled friendship with a disfigured painter. Gibson plays the supporting role, as the painter. And Stahl carries the film, with a fine performance balanced on the preadolescent cusp of spontaneity and craft. Once again, the story is about coming of age. Growing up, it seems, never goes out of fashion.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON