When chil­dren’s films look like real child­hood

TIFF Kids is bigger than Christ­mas at our house: this year we got tick­ets to 17 films

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - LATHAM HUNTER

Spring! Birds are chirp­ing, tulips are bloom­ing, and warm breezes ca­ress the land! All well and good, but the best thing about spring surely must be that it’s time for another TIFF KIDS FILM FES­TI­VAL!

That’s right: for three week­ends out of ev­ery April I have the op­por­tu­nity to trans­form my­self from su­per-downer-no-screen­time-mom into film-fes­ti­val-nerd-mom! What’s that you say, chil­dren? You want screen time just like all your friends? NO PROBS! And you’re go­ing to have even MORE fun than the other kids be­cause your screen time will have sub­ti­tles! Woo hoo!

TIFF Kids is bigger than Christ­mas at our house: this year we got tick­ets to 17 films. There was a typed sched­ule on the fridge so ev­ery­one could keep track of who was see­ing what on which day. I’m not mak­ing this up.

Why all the fuss? Be­cause I’m a firm be­liever that A) film can be a vi­tal, for­ma­tive art and B) the films that Cana­dian kids get ac­cess to are largely crap. Last year I wrote about how the fes­ti­val show­cased com­plex and re­al­is­tic girl pro­tag­o­nists — some­thing Hol­ly­wood seems in­ca­pable of do­ing (In­side Out ex­cepted). This year was sim­i­larly strong in the gen­der equal­ity de­part­ment, thanks to won­der­ful films like Plas­tic China from China, On Wheels from Brazil, Heart­strings and Fanny’s Jour­ney from France, The Day My Fa­ther Be­came a Bush from the Nether­lands, Moun­tain Mir­a­cle: An Un­ex­pected Friend­ship from Ger­many, Lit­tle Wing from Fin­land …. Let me guess: you haven’t heard of any of these films, right? EX­ACTLY! Glob­al­iza­tion’s got­ten us bubkes when it comes to the chil­dren’s for­eign film mar­ket. It’s eas­ier to get a hold of ivory and au­to­matic weapons, for cry­ing out loud.

But be­fore I say any­thing more about this year’s fest: let me talk, as a coun­ter­point, about an Amer­i­can film from 2014 called Boy­choir, which I had hoped would of­fer a change from the usual Amer­i­can films made for kids. The young pro­tag­o­nist has had a rough start: he’s never met his dad; his mother’s al­co­holic; he’s fail­ing at school and he’s a delin­quent. Then his mother dies in a car ac­ci­dent. Thanks to his voice and his dad’s money, he’s parachuted into an elite board­ing school’s fa­mous boy choir. To sum up: there is no short­age of chal­lenges in the boy’s life — chal­lenges that a lot of kids could re­late to.

And yet the film­mak­ers thought it nec­es­sary to cre­ate Bad Guys in the choir — char­ac­ters bent on the pro­tag­o­nist’s de­struc­tion through cheat­ing and sab­o­tage (one boy even skulks in the shad­ows un­der a black hoodie, in case we missed the point). Why was the reg­u­lar, re­lat­able pain and suf­fer­ing in the boy’s life not enough? Why was this car­toon­ish malev­o­lence lay­ered over top? This is lazy sto­ry­telling; peo­ple are a lot more com­plex than good and evil, but com­plex­ity is more chal­leng­ing to con­vey and to un­der­stand.

Is this why we seem to be stuck in a mire of dumbed-down plots built for mass ap­peal rather than films that can strike a chord and res­onate so deeply that they change how we think about our­selves and oth­ers? Just a guess.

We have an over­abun­dance of ac­tion and fan­tasy in our movie the­atres, most of it geared to­ward the youth mar­ket and the sale of tie-ins, prod­uct place­ments and mer­chan­dise. But TIFF has those rare, won­der­ful films that rep­re­sent real-life ex­pe­ri­ences with re­al­is­tic com­plex­ity: the char­ac­ters deal with phys­i­cal and men­tal ill­ness, dis­abil­ity, bad grades, death, di­vorce, the limitations of class and cul­ture, be­ing dis­placed by war …. They fall in love for the first time. They feel out of place and then they find their place. Their sto­ries, in short, look like the lives of real chil­dren and place value on the ac­tual ex­pe­ri­ence of child­hood; these films tell kids that their chal­lenges — their lives — mat­ter, and are worth at­ten­tion.

In Moun­tain Mir­a­cle, the main char­ac­ter is frus­trat­ing: she has se­vere asthma that she makes worse with care­less­ness. She’s prickly, op­po­si­tional, and rude. She makes a lot of bad de­ci­sions. When film­mak­ers build this kind of char­ac­ter and then chal­lenge the au­di­ence to fig­ure her out and care about her, they’re not giv­ing us an easy task. But when an au­di­ence meets such a chal­lenge (and en­joys it … even with the sub­ti­tles) the whole process re­in­forces how un­der­stand­ing the messy com­plex­i­ties of hu­man­ity — get­ting beyond the idea that peo­ple can be di­vided into “good” and “bad” camps — is worth­while.

Net­flix has a form for re­quest­ing con­tent; I clicked on it and typed “Chil­dren’s Film Fes­ti­val Movies” and “For­eign Films for Chil­dren.” Maybe some­day, if enough of us ask for it, we’ll get the films our kids need, rather than the ones most likely to sell T-shirts and ac­tion fig­ures.

Latham Hunter is a writer and pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cultural stud­ies; her work has been pub­lished in jour­nals, an­tholo­gies, mag­a­zines and print news for over 20 years. She blogs at The Kids’ Book Cu­ra­tor.


A scene from "On Wheels", a Bra­zli­ian film fea­tured at this year’s TIFF.

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