Childhood's Richness on Film

Lisa Rosenberg March 23, 2010

When a child assumes center stage on film, the potential for both thematic richness and unexpected plot directions increases exponentially. Whether playing the lead or a key supporting character, children on film offer a particularly broad potential for inventiveness and surprise, fresh perspectives, a welcome freedom from moral constraints, and often a sense that hope is still possible even in dire circumstances.

Children in films, as in real life, have power only when they seize it, and agency only when they rise courageously above the timid crowd. Precisely because they lack experience, they more often choose daring over cautious actions. A child’s back-story is shorter and often less weighty, not likely to yet be as strong a predictor of who that child will become.

In the animated feature, Coraline (writer/director Henry Selick from the Neil Gaiman book, 2009), the lead character, Coraline, is a bored, lonely urban transplant stuck with her ultra-busy, work-at-home parents in a strange rural community filled with eccentrics. When she discovers a portal from her house to a mirror world where uber-nurturing versions of her own parents await, she’s initially tempted by their lavish attentions. She soon discovers that the mirror world parents are really monsters, intent on stealing her soul and keeping her forever.

As Coraline summons her wits and courage to overcome the mirror world parents and save herself and her family, the meaning of the story expands to become much more than a cautionary tale, reminding us to avoid the gifts of strangers. Coraline’s adventurous nature has made her an array of strikingly strange friends, who become part of the community that makes these rescues possible. Through the many bizarre turns and daunting trials of the story, she learns that she has agency, and that some of the most difficult battles must be fought alone, without those pledged to protect her. By the conclusion, the worlds she has encountered and secrets learned and kept have become not just the stuff of nightmare, best to be forgotten. Instead, they comprise a rich web of experiences through which she has learned who she is and how to survive.

In The Blind Side, based on the true story of a white southern matron who rescues a homeless African American teenager, the narrative is enriched by two opposing expressions of childhood. Michael Oher, the giant of a boy who Leigh Anne Tuohy takes under her wing, plays out the enormous narcissistic needs of children to be surrounded by care and attention. Lacking anyone to answer those needs for most of his life, Michael barely speaks and rarely ventures an expectation. By contrast, S.J., Leigh Anne’s garrulous, enthusiastic young son, brings Michael to the family and then helps his mother ensure Michael’s bright future as a professional athlete.

The story of Leigh Anne’s efforts to tip the odds in Michael’s favor is drama enough, but the ways in which Michael and S.J. mirror the core themes adds a depth that the narrative would not otherwise have had. In a story that is so much about the tough road to reclaim potential, these two characters reflect matched halves of the whole of childhood–Michael representative of what happens when the needs of childhood go unfulfilled, and S.J. displaying the unlimited potential of the child who is cared for.

In the animated feature, Up (writer/directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson), elderly, depressed Carl Fredricksen escapes his lonely life after his wife’s death by pursuing an adventure they had always hoped to share–visiting Paradise Falls in Peru. Carl has already reached back in time toward the magical thinking of childhood–he launches his journey in his own home, propelling it high in the air via helium-filled balloons. But his life is devoid of lasting hope for the future until Russell, a persistent young Boy Scout, lands on his porch and unwittingly joins Carl’s journey.

At first, Russell seems simply enthusiastic and determined, on a mission to earn his final merit badge by assisting a senior. In time, however, we learn that Russell’s journey reflects Carl’s own. Just as Carl has never before acted on his childhood dream of adventure travel, Russell’s dream of a close relationship with his estranged father seems only possible if he wins the merit badge and invites his father to his graduation ceremony.

As in The Blind Side, Carl’s journey in Up is unusual and dramatically compelling on its own. However, the addition of Russell as sidekick amplifies the story’s core theme–the value of pursuing dreams, at all costs. It ramps up the action, introducing multiple surprise turns as Russell’s impulsiveness repeatedly redirects their journey. Russell’s doggedness also galvanizes Carl to summon his courage and resilience in the face of absurdly difficult odds, and continue to believe in his power to succeed. In the end, Carl’s next chapter seems to have just begun. Via his new friendship with Russell, the best of Carl’s childhood has, in some very real ways, been restored.

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