Films about children

It is a striking paradox in all child myths that the ‘child’ is on the one hand delivered help­less into the power of terrible enemies and in continual danger of extinc­tion, while on the other he possesses powers far exceeding those of ordinary humanity”

Carl Jung,  Arche­types and the Collective Uncon­scious, 1990

Child­hood is one of those subjects that make special demands upon film-makers. Chil­dren live in a different world to adults, they see and exper­i­ence things which can be hard to trans­late into prosaic images. Directors need a partic­ular and intu­itive kind of imagin­a­tion to inter­pret a child’s view of life without senti­ment­ality or whimsy getting in the way.

When they succeed though the results can be excep­tional. Often the films that make the greatest impact on us are the ones we ourselves saw as chil­dren because that is when we are at our most receptive. To recap­ture, even in a distant and nostalgic fashion, that receptivity – that open­ness of imagin­a­tion – is to be let back from our adult exile into the country of child­hood for a while.

Some of these films do that, others are more anthro­po­lo­gical in approach, but they all have their merits. You will notice that the French, in partic­ular, have a talent for making sens­itive films about childhood.

British cinema

A High Wind in Jamaica 1965

Directed by the Ealing Comedies veteran, Alex­ander McKendrick, this is a more or less faithful version of Richard Hughes classic novel about a family of English chil­dren (look out for a young Martin Amis in the cast) who are mistakenly kidnapped by a group of seedy pirates lead by Anthony Quinn.

The film was promoted as a swash­buck­ling adven­ture but, to give it credit, some of the deeper themes in the book, dealing with the destructive power of inno­cence, remain in the film; together with its ironic ending. It can be enjoyed on more than one level.

Lord Of The Flies 1963

Peter Brook’s 60’s adapt­a­tion of William Golding’s classic remains the defin­itive version, despite clumsy attempts to remake it with Amer­ican actors.

The story has a universal appeal and reson­ance but it is essen­tially English and is best under­stood in the context of a repressive post-war British culture, repres­sion that was about to give way to a more liber­ated era.

In that way, the film, like the book, is a perfect paradigm of its time: the choir boys in their stiff ruffs and capes freed to become painted and ‘dangerous’ savages – or maybe hippies? But it is more than that of course. Golding was a moralist and philo­sopher but he was a teacher too, and he under­stood the politics and tribalism of the play­ground, and the often brutal power struggles that take place in childhood.

Our Mother’s House 1967

This adapt­a­tion of Julian Gloag’s novel about a family of chil­dren who cover up the death of their mother pursues the same theme of ‘chil­dren without adults’ as Lord of The Flies, albeit in a suburban English setting.

But unlike Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, a later version of this story, there is no incest theme; the chil­dren here are thor­oughly middle class and so vulner­able to the unlikely parental figure of Dirk Bogarde as a seedy oppor­tunist who exploits them. Predict­ably though, as these things play out, the treach­erous adult is ulti­mately punished for betraying their trust.

Night Hair Child 1972

There’s a wonder­fully bizarre clash of genres and actors repu­ta­tions within this scene between Britt Ekland and Mark Lester which could have been subtitled as Oliver meets A Sexpot. Makes you marvel how their agents ever agreed to them taking the roles.

It’s prob­ably the most inter­esting aspect of what is other­wise a fairly conven­tional bad-seed story with Giallo trap­pings but the theme of childish inno­cence that corrodes and destroys adults is one that recurs in many films about children.

Runners 1983

Stephen Poliakoff is another play­wright who made the trans­ition from stage to the small screen in the seven­ties and whose early tv plays like Caught on A Train and Soft Targets were land­mark produc­tions. His later work has been less memor­able – possibly because he’s been given too much control and has become a sort of tv version of Woody Allen.
Runners however still shows him on mettle even if the premise is suspect. A young girl runs away from home in a desperate quest for inde­pend­ence and is pursued by her obsessive father (James Fox). There are finely judged perform­ances also from Jane Asher and Kate Hardie but the idea of a gener­a­tion gap pushed to this extreme takes a little swallowing.

Two Cars, One Night 2004

Written and directed by Taika Waititi, this New Zealand short about chil­dren waiting in cars outside a bar for their adults is a delic­ately shaded and nuanced piece with a great deal of charm.

An allu­sion to a classic romance is here but nothing is done in a heavy-handed way; even the parade of passing char­ac­ters are subtly drawn. Few short films create this kind of atmo­sphere so deftly and econom­ic­ally or conjure a world so effectively.

French Cinema

The French have made some of the most inter­esting and sens­itive films about child­hood and are fully deserving of their own section. I have delib­er­ately avoided some of the more familiar and obvious choices (The Red Balloon, Zazie Dans Le Metro, Les Quatres Cent Coups) in favour of a few that are less well known.

Poil de Carotte 1925

Based on a classic book by Jules Renard, this early film by Julien Duvivier was origin­ally made as a silent movie. It tells the story of a boy (‘Carrot Top’) neglected by his parents to the point of suicide who finds friend­ship with an older man. Poten­tially a ‘weepy’, it’s saved from senti­ment­ality by a certain charm and uniqueness.

This is partly due to the central perform­ances by Harry Bauer and the odd febrile Robert Lynen in the name role. There’s also some poignancy in the fact that Lynen was later shot by the Gestapo for fighting in the resist­ance and Bauer deported as a Jew.

Les Jeux Inter­dits 1952

Paul­ette, a five-year-old refugee from Paris is taken in by a peasant family after her parents are killed during a bombard­ment of a civilian convoy. The family’s 11-year-old son becomes her best friend, and they create an animal cemetery in which Paulette’s dog is buried along with other animals and insects.

Directed by Rene Clement, this was one of the first and best-known films to show war from a child’s perspective. The rituals the chil­dren create for them­selves as a way of coping are similar to the boys in Lord of The Flies. The chil­dren are also ignored by the adults and inhabit a world of their own imagination.

Sundays and Cybele 1962

Hardy Kruger is an emotion­ally damaged bomber pilot living in semi-seclusion in a small Parisian suburb. He is drawn out of his shell by a 12-year-old orphan girl (Patricia Gozzi) with whom he develops a warm, chaste rela­tion­ship. The nuns in charge of Patricia bless the rela­tion­ship, assuming that Kruger is the girl’s father. Kruger and the girl make a decision to spend Christmas together in a nearby woods but unfor­tu­nately a nurse, suspecting that Kruger is a paedo­phile, calls the police.

This type of senti­mental love story seemed to feature in early 60’s culture: one thinks of Joseph Kessel’s The Lion and many Hayley Mills vehicles. Here it is handled with typical French delicacy, the real theme being the tension between inno­cence (Kruger is nearly as naive as the girl) and the prurient world of adulthood.

Ponette 1996

Ponette, a little girl bereaved of her mother, uses a kind of ‘magical thinking’ to bring her back to life again rather in the vein of Truly Madly Deeply.
What could have been a cloy­ingly senti­mental film is saved by the remark­able central perform­ance by Victoire Thivisol but also by its truthful depic­tion of the way small chil­dren behave and interact with each other.

Toto The Hero 1991

Directed by Jaco Van Dormael, who also directed The Eighth Day and Mr Nobody, this Belgian film is a bitter­sweet fable of lost love and missed oppor­tun­ities (subtitled “How to Mess Up Your Life”) that follows its prot­ag­onist liter­ally from the cradle to the grave.

The sequence excerpted here belongs to one of its lighter moments: an old man remem­bering the unique perspective of his child­hood which is presented in the style of a children’s matinee show. It follows a theme that is threaded through the film and helps to lend it an unex­pected depth of feeling. It is diffi­cult to convey how a child sees the world without being patron­ising or senti­mental. This is one of the best attempts at it on screen.

L’Oro Di Napoli 1954

Part of an antho­logy of stories set in Naples, The Gambler stars De Sica in a hilarious perform­ance as a compulsive gambler reduced to playing cards with the young son of his servant because his rich family won’t give him money.

The boy is press-ganged reluct­antly into playing cards and is still a better gambler than his father’s boss but the point isn’t rammed home and the char­ac­ter­isa­tion is subtle and funny.

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