The youth of today – When child actors steal the show
My favourite Oscar memory is from 1994. New Zealand is perfectly situated on the globe to enable us to watch the livecast ceremony on an otherwise boring Monday afternoon each year. Two decades ago a bunch of us eschewed uni lectures (gosh, this is becoming a theme…) and took over a table at the uni pub, instructed the bartender to switch the channel from sport, and sat for four glorious hours as The Piano took home lots of trophies. It was on this afternoon that a wee Anna Paquin, wide-eyed and hyperventilating in an aqua beret but ever the professional, proclaimed a breathless, Antipodean-accented “I’d like to thank the Academy” as she took the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Kids on film are great. For some reason there are far more bad adult actors than there are children, and this isn’t just because the casting director got lucky. Kids often have a guileless honesty about them, and therefore deliver performances that lasso you with their heart-aching simplicity.
The Weight of Elephants is one such example. The New Zealand-Danish production takes us into the strained life of young Adrian who lives with his fraught grandma and mentally ill Uncle Rory (Matthew Sunderland, terrific as always). Adrian’s little face is in frame for most of the movie, and though his travails are those of many a young Kiwi lad – the longing to be accepted by friends and family – novice actor Demos Murphy moves like he’s living the experience rather than acting it out. Filmmaker Daniel Borgman has created a stunning film that indulges the audience with sweeping slo-mo shots set to an exquisite soundtrack. The plot is gently involving, opening up myriad threads that feel urgent in their resolution, so if I have any complaint it’s that this truly cinematic and beautiful film stops more suddenly than you might wish.
Two more great kids steal every scene in the superlative The Selfish Giant. Despite glowing reviews from the UK, I was still surprised to see a totally packed out audience at my screening; the type of crowd who usually flocks to something cheerier. I worried one of us must have misread the programme, until the story began and I knew that it wasn’t me…
It’s grim up north and director Clio Barnard sure knows how to paint an authentic portrait of life below the poverty line as wiry, hyperactive Arbor and his best friend Swifty, counterpoint to Arbor in every way, search for scrap metal in order to raise money to “pay the electric”. Set in Bradford, life is grey and grimy and extremely hard, as evidenced on the faces of all the adults (including a welcome turn from Downton Abbey‘s Miss O’Brien playing a contemporary, downtrodden mother). But despite the universally hard knocks, there is a glimmer of hope that their lot may improve thanks to Swifty’s acuity with gypsy horse racing.
With intensely natural dialogue, every performance is heart-breakingly real – think Ken Loach or Mike Leigh when he’s not being funny. Aided by stunning cinematography and a knack for pacing, this is effortless filmmaking.
Slightly older kids, and closer to home, are Romeo Montegue and Juliet Capulet, two beautiful young things living in the Verona Campground just outside Auckland. Their families are rivals, so it doesn’t bode well when they clap eyes on one another at a boozy party and fall instantly in love. Given the bad odds for marriage nowadays, is their fate sealed or doomed?
Forget Baz Luhrmann’s madcap updating of Shakespeare’s classic tale – Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song presents the star-crossed lovers as you’ve never seen – or heard – them before. Set entirely to a newly written rock opera soundtrack, the Verona Campground is a haven of Westie attire and rough but loving family values, peopled by tough-looking folk with angelic voices. The acting is by turns hilarious or heartfelt (as appropriate), and the music an exciting compilation of rap, rock and ballad – all photographed like one long glorious music video.
My friend, an accomplished musician and high school English teacher (thus aptly qualified to comment) was so rapt she described it as better than Jesus Christ Superstar. Indeed, it’s not just local audiences who will dine out on the Kiwiness of it all, but this innovative and incredibly accomplished rendering of one of the oldest stories in the book deserves to be appreciated worldwide.
A final shout-out to the youth of today: Greta Gerwig’s charming performance in Frances Ha. Far away from Waipu Cove, Frances lives in a black and white New York City with her best gal-pal, Sophie. Frances is 27, still finding herself but not even really knowing where to look, as she drifts between college and a grown-up career as a dancer. Quirky and undeniably lovely, she nonetheless suffers the slings and arrows of being told she looks older than her age “but less mature”, and that she’s “completely undateable” by the evidently keen Benji.
Directed by The Squid and the Whale‘s Noah Baumbach, and co-written with Gerwig, this is economical filmmaking at its best (and a mere snip at 86 minutes). An ill-fated trip to Paris provides a ruefully funny anti-cliché. She’s awkward at dinner parties, but pirouettes neatly along the fine line between foolish and funny.
Though Frances Ha is inevitably reminiscent of TV’s Girls (enhanced by the presence of Adam Driver), Frances is less angsty and self-conscious than Hannah. This girl deserves accolades in her own right.