Happy International Youth Day! To celebrate, our contributors recommend some of their favourite oeuvres targeted at a younger audience. Please stay tuned tomorrow for part two of this super-sized roundup piece. We also invite you to post you comments, but don’t be creepy about it, okay?
Stand By Me (1986)
I think W. C. Fields was really speaking to directors when he said, “Never work with animals or children.” They’re the ones who have to play school principal on set: sometimes disciplining the little brats, other times making them cry to get the right take. Rob Reiner did both when he adapted Stephen King’s semi-autobiographical novella The Body, about an old writer (Richard Dreyfuss) musing back to a pivotal moment of his youth on Labor Day weekend 1959. The four boys in the cast are still remembered today, either for their stint on a famous sci-fi franchise (Will Wheaton), for their unfulfilled promise à la James Dean (River Phoenix), for their later-life antics (Corey Feldman), or for switching dimensions and parodying Scientology videos (Jerry O’Connell). What is also remembered is their breakthrough dramatic performances in Stand by Me.
There are two kinds of kids’ movies: those that are aimed at kids and those that aren’t. Stand by Me falls in the second lot and delivers on all fronts: great pacing and direction, heartbreaking moments, unflinchingly honest dialogue… Here is a movie that takes you back to a time you through you’d never experience again, portraying twelve-year-olds as they are rarely portrayed: old enough to wonder what life will bring and question the lies adults tell them, but young enough to argue with earnest conviction about who is strongest, Superman or Mighty Mouse.
In the Night Kitchen
Until recently, I’ve had the rare pleasure of living a catapult shot away from a public library: walls I happily scaled in May, when Maurice Sendak passed away, and I laid siege to his works. Justly famous for Where the Wild Things Are, the author-illustrator has a legacy that extends far beyond that one example. Unlike many of their kind, his stories don’t talk down to kids but tell a strange story straight from just the angle a child might understand. Sendak’s ability to capture the emotional expansiveness as well as the occasional frustrations and callousness of youth is simply brilliant.
In the late sixties and early seventies, the world produced a lot of oddities, not the least of which is the award-winning In the Night Kitchen. The style, if not quite the tone, borrows heavily from Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo and showcases Sendak’s abilities as a draftsman. The book is an excellent example of true serialized art, with a storyboard approach that lends a cinematic quality to the story: a boy falls into darkness, wakes, makes an airplane out of dough, and escapes from three giant chefs (I’m leaving things out). Along the way, he learns what dreams are if not quite what they’re made of, and we’re reminded of the mystery of youth, something we’d all like to get back.
The Hunger Games
The world portrayed in Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel, The Hunger Games, isn’t all that far from our own. The post-war country of Panem is divided into feeder Districts that are subjugated to the will of the Capitol, hoarder of resources and technology. To make sure the masses remember their place, one girl and one boy from each district are chosen by lottery every year to participate in a contest to the death. The prize: glory and resources for the winner’s district. The cost: his or her sanity along with the lives of all the other contestants.
When Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the Hunger Games in order to save her sister, she starts a revolution that, through two more novels, leaves us wondering whether there is such a thing as “benevolent power” or “lesser evil”. If nothing else, the heroine’s strategy for surviving her ordeal makes for a good survivor’s guide to high school: dress the part, trust fleetingly, hide your emotions, and watch your back. The Hunger Games may even help parents understand the cutthroat world in which their kids are thrust every day. At any rate, readers of any age can benefit from this cautionary tale.
I know what you’re thinking: isn’t The Secret that vapid self-help video in which Rhonda Byrne argues all one needs to succeed in life is positive thinking, as if the starving children of Africa should be blamed for not spending enough time imagining an alternate reality where decades of colonial abuse helped their socio-economical ecosystem instead of burning it to the ground? In fact, I’m referring to the Vincent Perez film also known as Si J’étais Toi even though it’s an English-language production. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a stay-at-home mom (Mimi Driver) ends up in her estranged daughter’s body (Olivia Thirlby) after a car accident, allowing her to experience the teenage plight anew, from the pressures of high school to the foolish impulses born of hormonal shifts.
Here’s the twist: the movie plays its premise straight, exploring every disturbing implication free of slapstick. For example, our heroine, Hannah, finds herself overwhelmingly horny and can’t help rubbing up against her husband Ben (David Duchovny), but he sees too much of the little girl they raised together. The paradox of living a child’s existence with a parent’s ambitions soon takes its toll, and Hannah must decide whether she’d rather her daughter’s return (which would mean death) or the freedom of this new chance at life. Whereas most films of its ilk use sentimental platitudes to bridge the gap between teens and adults, The Secret exposes the true heart of the conflict: for one group, youth amounts to a curse; for the other, it represents boundless opportunity.