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
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.