Saturday, December 10, 2011

Child actors that don't make me want to gauge my eyes out

My generous brother-in-law recently got the bright idea of splitting the cost of a really fancy HD TeeVee* with us and storing it at our house, an early Christmas present for all of us. So what's the first thing we watch with our magical new flatscreen, to take in the breathless realism of the images it can show us? The obvious thing to watch, of course: a Jurassic Park marathon!

I've only seen the first and second one on the TeeVee so far, and it's been years since I'd watched either one or the third movie. Some of my objective observations after all these years are: dinosaurs are great. I like dinosaurs, particularly the big ones that go "rawr". Laura Dern and Julianne Moore as the female leads in both films are so affable and bubbly I want to punch them. Sam Neill is hot. Despite the cuddly, contrite, Santa Claus vibe he gives off, John Hammond may just be cinema's greatest monster. You could almost forgive him his hubris in the first one because he acts a little sad and broken at the end, but then he jovially sends off four other people to Site B in the second movie, where one member gets torn in half by two T-Rexes. Does Hammond show any remorse for that? No. He just wears that damn shit-eating grin and monologues sappily about "life finding a way" at the end, reinstated as head of his company. Puh.

Other observations: Jeff Goldblum is very, very hot. Samuel L. Jackson is a badass no matter how paltry his role, or how awful his catchphrase "Hold onto your butt" is. He can smoke a damn cigarette in the office if he wants to, fuck you for throwing a shit-fit about it, it was only 1993. The T-Rexes remind me of my obsessive compulsive overweight German Shepherd mix. That searing glare the T-Rexes are famous for in the movies? Just like Milo when he's trying to get you to throw the toy throw the toy throw the toy.

Nothing will ever make me not like the first movie, and nothing will ever make me not ogle Goldblum in the second movie. However, the biggest observation I took away from both movies was how very, intensely much I hated the children. Hated. Did I look away when Samuel L. Jackson's arm fell on Laura Dern? No (I could also point out the veiled racism in a few of the first movie's scenes, but maybe that's for another post). Did I look away when that dude was ripped in half, or Peter Stormare (also pretty hot) almost got his lip ripped off by that Compy in the second? I kinda wanted to, but no. 

Did I look away when Lex and Tim cuddle up to Neill's composed, James Mason-of-the-Outdoors Dr. Grant up in that tree, or when Goldblum's Ian Malcolm tells his daughter she's his inspiration? Hell yes I did.

The child characters bring out contrived, forced emotions from the adult actors, making the audience feel uncomfortable on their behalf--particularly when they're as curmudgeonly and British as Grant or as coolly intellectual and snarky as Malcolm. But because their characters are so dry and intelligent, we're supposed to find it endearing that their soft spots end up being shrill, whiny, do-nothing-but-endanger-everyone children. But it's not endearing. It's sugary despair, is what it is.

Not only are the child characters poorly written as needy stereotypes, they're poorly acted for the most part, too. Some of the blame might lie with the director, since I'm sure Spielberg had his eye mostly on this new-fangled CGI business than concerning himself with getting good performances out of the kids. Hayley Mills lookalike Ariana Richards as Lex fares the best even if she is shrill and monotonous, probably coming across all right because she was in her teens at that point. But Joseph Mazzello as Tim and Vanessa Lee Chester as Kelly in the sequel are hopeless--particularly Chester, whose character wasn't even in the second book, and so feels shoved in and out of place. And going by our count, Tim should have died at least three times. Yeah, yeah, realistically all the characters should have died at various points, but Tim was freaking zapped by a high-voltage electric fence. (Is he an undead gremlin boy? That could explain a lot about his insipid personality).

But then again, this shuddering disapproval is my usual reaction to children in movies. It's not because I don't like children in general. In reality they just make me awkward and nervous--I can't relate to them at all, though I too like dinosaurs. It's just that if children are in movies, it's almost always so they can serve as symbols of innocence (barring the ghostly little creepers in straight-up horror movies). And symbols of innocence almost always come off as phony and saccharine, no matter in what medium or in what form. Not to mention, children generally don't act very well. 

HOWEVER. There are some that can. So to get in the holiday spirit or something (or whatever), here's a list of child actors that I actually admire.

Martin Stephens

Probably the best child actor I've ever seen, giving a lot of seasoned adults a run for their money. What's excellent about Village of the Damned and The Innocents is that both films exploit the problems people like me have with children-- not being able to relate to them, the inaccurate image of gleeful innocence the movies peddle of them--and make those qualities a terrifying cover of something far more sinister.

Particularly unsettling and preternaturally precocious is Stephens's performance as Miles in 1961's Innocents, one of the most beautiful and atmospheric horror films ever made, evocative of David Lynch's later works. It's a tour-de-force perfomance for the 12-year-old Stephens, an assured, confident display that subtly captures the corruption just simmering away beneath that bland, proper face.

Pamela Franklin

Admittedly I've only seen her as the second sibling Flora in The Innocents, and while she's not called upon to be as intense or nuanced as Stephens, hers is still a very delicate, unsettling performance in its own right. Who can forget her pert, pretty charm contrasted to her mesmerized stares into the distance and her haunting humming? Memorable.

Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly in Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952)

The most genuinely heartbreaking movie I've ever seen, with steady, unaffected performances from the young leads. The frank, touching, and at many times darkly comic tale concerns the somewhat morbid but still pure-intentioned coping methods of two children thrown together during the devastation of Germany's oncoming occupation of France during World War II--coping mechanisms that include swiping crosses from the church's graveyard to decorate their own graveyard for dead animals they find. 

Fossey is about as adorable a child can be without making you projectile vomit, her angelic mannerisms acceptable because of their artless quality. Poujouly, as the poor, rustic farm boy who takes her in, has the unsentimental gravity to complement her dreamy spaciness, yet his fierce love and protectiveness of her is apparent, and will tear you apart at the end. Fossey turned into a lovely adult with a reasonably active career, but frustratingly Poujouly, despite making many films after, never seems to have made a name for himself, and died ten years ago (oh man, on my birthday, that sucks).

The movie is on Netflix Instant View, so I highly recommend it if you have an account and can cope with your tears.

Bobb'e J. Thompson

I was forced against my will to go see 2008's Role Models at the theater, but was pleasantly surprised at its lack of meanheartedness. Thompson as the raunchy, volatile Ronnie was a lot of fun and had a great delivery. I'm pleased he also plays Tracy's oft-neglected son Tracy, Jr. on 30 Rock, another good showcase for an intelligent, unsentimental kid to strut his acting skills. Too bad his presence constantly thwarts Tracy's efforts to tell an amazing stripper story, and that little Tracy, Jr. might just be trying to Menendez his father in order to inherit that porn video game money.

Chloe Moretz

Shamefully I must admit the fact that I have as yet to see her in a whole movie, just having seen bits and parts of her scenes in Kickass and Let Me In. I do plan to see the much lauded Hugo sometime soon. But speaking of 30 Rock, the episode she was in last season was my first complete Moretz experience, and she did not disappoint. I was amazed to find out she really was only fourteen. She has a brilliant comic timing, and loads of presence. And she has good taste in projects, projects that will help propel her into adult success, since few movies she's done really have CHILDREN'S FILM written in big block letters all over them. I look forward to her interpretation of Carolyn in Dark Shadows, since if anyone can pull off a younger version of Carolyn, it should be Moretz.

This isn't a complete list, but it's sort of redundant to point out stellar kid actors like Dakota Fanning or Jodie Foster in her Taxi Driver days. Just wanted to remind myself that not all cinematic moppets are twee and dimply. They can also be murderous vampires, malicious aliens, or possibly possessed. So there continues to be hope for this world. A happy holiday season to us all!

P.S. I'm working a seasonal position at the mall that's heating up in a big way as Christmas is nearing, so that's why I haven't been very active lately, and I might not be again until after the holidays. I'll still try to update as much as I can and comment on the many delightful blogs I follow, but if you hear scarce word from me, have a safe and good time eating holiday food and all that jazz!

* "TeeVee" to be pronounced in this case like Tom Servo does here at 0:40.


  1. What a great idea for a post, Laura! Child acting is one of the few things I will concede that newer films tend to do better on than older films. Not that terrible child acting doesn't still exist (as you point out with Jurassic Park) but I think the bar has been steadily raised by child actors like Osment and Fanning and Foster. I'd probably add Hailee Steinfeld's performance in True Grit as another unsentimental and multifaceted child performance.

    Come to think of it, I can just about stand the "symbol of innocence" child actor; it's the bratty, precocious ones that really drive me up the wall. Sort of that sitcom-style, "isnt't it cute that the six year old is giving the adult relationship advice?" humor. Please stop doing this, screenwriters.

    And if you like Pamela Franklin, you should check out her performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie if you haven't already. She makes a stunning and eerie shift from stiff, bossy schoolgirl into treacherous femme fatale, in a way that's both believable and creepy.

  2. "It's the bratty, precocious ones that really drive me up the wall. Sort of that sitcom-style, "isnt't it cute that the six year old is giving the adult relationship advice?" humor." YES. Oh god, that's a million times worse than the innocence trope, you're right.

    I've been meaning to check out Miss Jean Brodie for awhile now, but something keeps coming up. I need to get on that.

    You're also right that movies with kids don't seem as bad now as they used to. Maybe the '90s purged us of that. And thank the lord we really don't have an equivalent to Shirley Temple around.

  3. I really dig Pamela Franklin in The Legend of Hell House and And Soon the Darkness, but those are both adult performances. Martin Stephens may have been the better child actor, but Franklin made the better transition when she grew up.

    There are amazing performances from children these days, aren't there? Whether its because child actors are better or because directors of child actors are better, I don't know, but Moretz is amazing. The Fanning sisters are amazing. Siorse Ronan is amazing. Hailee Steinfeld is amazing. But Spielberg has no excuse for the Jurassic Park movies, because even at the time, there were terrific child actors out there like Lucas Black and Christina Ricci. My favorite of the Jurassic Park movies is the third one, mainly because the kid in that movie isn't annoying--certainly not as annoying as Tea Leoni, who I desperately wanted to see eaten by a dinosaur, damn the luck.

    My favorite child performance ever was given by Ana Torrent in The Spirit of the Beehive. Talk about an absolutely guileless, beautiful child's face.

  4. Ooh, I think I did see Legend of Hell House ages ago, and was mightily impressed by Franklin. I'm glad she had a good career, though it's depressing Stephens never seemed to. Although apparently he's had success as an architect, so easy come, easy go, maybe.

    Perhaps contemporary filmmakers get better performances from kids because they got their fill of the child-friendly tripe abundant in the '90s, movies like Hooked, Jumanji, etc. I actually don't remember the third Jurassic Park all that well (other than that I liked it), since I only saw it in the theaters, so I'll have to watch again in the next few days to see how Lucas Black does. I don't seem to recall cringing at any childish antics in that one, so I'll probably agree with you. But yes, there does seem to be a surplus of precocious kid actors out today, who skillfully avoid some of the dreck that made the '90s a pretty impossible decade in a lot of ways.

  5. Er. Lucas Black wasn't in JP 3. Unfortunately. I think he was a bit old for the part by that time anyway.

  6. Did I put Lucas Black? Gah, it's because you mentioned him earlier and I got confused about everything! I meant to put Trevor Morgan. There. And you can't prove otherwise I dare you.

  7. What's your take on Virginia Weidler, who plays Dinah Lord, the kid sister who sings "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" in "The Philadelphia Story"? Personally I like her -- she's not sappy, and has that witty dialog thing down.

  8. Dr. OTR: dang, it's been a long time since I've seen Philadephia Story, so I don't have the clearest image of Weidler's acting in my mind. However, that I don't remember her is probably a good thing, means she didn't stick out like a sore thumb. Welp, guess I'll just have to watch it again to make sure! Heh heh.

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