The Kids Will Be Alright | June Monthly Top
We associate July with the summer holidays and Children’s Day, this social construct that we use to celebrate and revisit the purest period of our existence before we have been perverted by adult responsibilities. Or, depending on the case, it can be the memory of the parades of the Falcons of the Fatherland (i.e. an organization for children from 4 to 7 years old in communist Romania) or of the ’90s popular TV shows for children or of childhood games, which are all still fresh in mind. Most often, we speak condescendingly about “acting like children” as if the little ones’ sense of self were inferior or incomplete, and we look back on that period by looking down at it, from the height of the adult gaze. Few films diverge from this simplistic perspective, trying not to adapt but to capture the curious gaze of the little ones and their way of seeing the world they are part of. I chose four films that build a cinematic universe around childhood by placing it at its center and not in the broader context of society. These films’ protagonists are not defined by the adults they come from, rather they deepen what it’s like to feel something new, to discover things for the first time, or to try to make sense of them.
Summer 1993 (dir. Carla Simón, 2017)
The film, for which Catalan director Carla Simón won the Best Debut Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2017, is an emotional story of autobiographical inspiration, told from the perspective of a six-year-old girl. After her mother’s death, Frida (Laia Artigas) moves with her uncle’s family (Esteve and Marga, who also have a little girl) to the countryside. The close-ups, always on the little protagonist and shot from her eye level, convey all the desolation, anger and inability to adapt she feels. Forced by the transformations she doesn’t know how to process, the adults’ world seems fragmented and incomprehensible. The couple’s problems are vague, presented in whispered, carefully measured conversations, which end as soon as the child seems to understand something. Just like Ana Torrent in Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, Laia Artigas expresses with authenticity and candor that moment of transition in which death transforms from something fictitious and harmless (the opening scene with the children’s game presents such a moment) into a harsh and immovable reality. Simón does not fall into the temptation of sentimentality but uses the context of summer vacation to set the mood: the outdoor parties, traditions and housework serve not only the naturalness of the plot but also as a safety net for Frida’s innocence. Despite the hermetic nature of the character, who defies the social norms of how to deal with suffering and expresses her pain by hurting those around her, as often happens with her younger cousin, Summer 1993 is an epiphany. That of “growing pains”.
System Crasher (dir. Nora Fingscheidt, 2019)
Benni (Helena Zengel) is a little girl with a hard temper and anger issues, which is why she always gets expelled from the placement center she ends up at. Subscribing to that tradition of films in which the right teacher/adult finds the key to communicating with a problem child, establishing a relationship based on trust and affection, Nora Fingscheidt’s feature explores, above all, the neglected needs of children in vulnerable situations. Shot handheld-style, the plot opens with an episode emblematic of the character: violent attacks manifested by self-harm and aggression towards others. Therapy and integration programs do not seem to work with this child who refuses to be subjected to a formula and who seems impenetrable in her interactions with others. Reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers’ misfit characters, the German director makes not only a psychological portrait of the “wild child” but also a social analysis of the system and its faults. The context that turned Benny into a problem is not omitted either, from the mother-daughter relationship to the interactions with other children and the rejection she gets when she tries to behave herself. If the lack of a paternal figure and the emotional unavailability of the mother lead to obvious Freudian responses and difficulties in shaping the child’s personality, what impresses, in particular, is the unpredictability and the versatile acting of Helena Zengel. Since no adult is able to keep up with her, the camera distances itself from the character even in times of solitude, almost losing her in the immensity of the wider shots, and gets closer only in the tender scenes, of family reunion. Although it does not provide a solution, nor an alleviation of Benni’s issues, the camera restores her autonomy through the use of shot/countershot in depicting the raging bursts she has with her caregiver, demanding what she deserves unconditionally: a bit of love and a chance at a normal future.
The Demons (dir. Philippe Lesage, 2015)
After directing several documentaries, Philippe Lesage turned to fiction to explore the confusion and fears of childhood. In The Demons, novelty is a source of anxiety for Félix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), a ten-year-old boy who absorbs and stores up every information about the frightening adult world. Unable to cope with the complexity of the world he grows up in and prone to urban legends, Félix takes his information from scraps of conversation between his classmates or his older siblings. Tributary to documentary film and adopting the little protagonist’s perspective, Lesage dedicates a large part of the film to observe the people around him. If some of the boy’s fears are within normal limits, such as the fear of the dark, of being excluded, or worse, of being harassed by his classmates, and others are somewhat funny (he comes to the terrifying conclusion that he is gay and thus has AIDS because he played house with another classmate), the most frightening ones are explored in the second part of the film. Lesage marks the coming-of-age drives with thriller accents, as he juggles with a secondary narrative thread, which follows a pedophile running free in the city, a story that haunts the protagonist, who feels the threat without being able to verbalize too well what it means. The Canadian director treats the character’s justified or unjustified anxieties with the same dedication, the boy’s insecurities taking shape in the dark. Similar to Haneke, the perspective is manipulated by the tropes of the genre from a curiosity-led perceptive one into a harsh revelation of the loss of innocence, capturing the surroundings and waiting for the small details to betray the treacherous intentions of the action. Adopting the ambiguity of Félix’s gaze, Lesage builds ambivalent spaces such as the swimming pool, that topos for leisure and having fun, which can also lead to isolation and the feeling of not fitting in.
Nana (dir. Valérie Massadian, 2011)
The smallest production on the list and perhaps the simplest is Nana, the first in the French director Valérie Massadian’s trilogy about female youth. Former assistant to American photographer Nan Goldin and with a background in modeling, Massadian chooses for her debut feature a surprising setting, far from civilization and the comfort of modern living. With a Bressonian narrative economy, Nana illustrates the daily life of a little girl (Kelyna Lecomte) who lives with her mother in a secluded house in the woods. Without following a rigorous script and allowing the little actress to manifest freely, the director preferred to limit herself to creating and setting up situations, choosing to give them meaning later, in the editing stage. The film begins with the protagonist’s grandfather slaughtering a pig and the little girl casually asking if the liquid flowing from the animal’s jugular is blood or paint. Her grandfather teaches her how to deal with wild animals and her mother washes her and reads her bedtime stories in a hard-to-reach stone house that is only heated by a wood fire. However, this unconventional family does not live together, and the precarious situation of the young mother, although unexplained, seems permanent. There is a certain tenderness to their domestic rituals and repeated gestures, that is, learning through mimesis, which is paramount for survival. The mother raises her, and the process is meant to help her become independent and to prepare her for life. When Nana is left on her own, the unceremonious way in which she continues her life in her mother’s absence and applies what she has learned so far is perhaps the most natural reaction she can have. And when the little girl reads a bedtime story to herself, it becomes clear that our perspective on childhood is distorted by memories and lacks the autonomy that the little protagonist claims. And it’s also the moment I couldn’t get myself to stop crying.