When I was in film school I was taught never to work with animals or children. One excels at following commands but not necessarily acting cues; the other does just about whatever it pleases. And yet both are usually essential to the craft. Without animals, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale would’ve been two hours of Richard Gere sitting on a train. Without children, Lord of the Flies would’ve been a resort commercial for castaways. Let’s face it, as finicky as it can be to direct kids, they’re needed. And when you finally discover one that can actually act, it’s the filmmaking equivalent of buying a Porsche.
But kids didn’t have a prominent role in the movies till about the 1980s. Up until that point the most famous child stars were probably Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, both of whom had stopped being children for about thirty-five years. Temple wasn’t even considered a serious actor, lending her pudgy cuteness to cloying roles instead of dramatic ones. Garland, of course, was renowned for her musicals and rapidly lost control of her life as superstardom began to cave in (she reportedly needed a psychiatrist at the age of eighteen). It wasn’t till Jodie Foster in 1976 that children began to adopt more rounded, developed characters in an attempt to legitimise their profession.
And then the ‘80s hit, and E.T. was made, and suddenly children weren’t just sidekicks, but heroes. Movies could revolve around them. Elevate them. Understand them. It made stars of Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore, and, if just for that moment, propped them on top of the world. What happened to their careers after that was nobody’s concern.
Indeed, child actors either sink or swim. The problem is that most of them perform at an age where they’re unable to make their own decisions. Many of them realise in hindsight that they only acted because their parents got giddy at the thought of all the millions they’d make, and eventually dropped out. Mr. Anakin Skywalker himself, Jake Lloyd, vanished. Haley Joel Osment faded away. Macaulay Culkin generously let his brother take over, while Dakota Fanning made way for her sister. It’s like a kid learning the violin because his dad loves Classical music, but what he really wants to do is play in the World Cup.
That’s all changed now, though. With the advent of networks like Nickelodeon and Disney, kids are learning at a young age to embrace superstardom. Teenagers and fame walk together now like an old senile couple. It’s no longer icky to be in the news; the news has become the curriculum. For if Hannah Montana can deal with fame, why can’t I?
Then there’s the ubiquitous Young Adult crowd; the pool of teenage talent thrust prematurely into adulthood so that everyone can kiss, fight, shoot weapons, and look sexy doing it. Genres like this have reinforced the idea that to be young is to be cool, and to be cool is to not crack under pressure, which is why there are more and more young actors gaining popularity through film (and fewer requiring therapy), just look at Emma Watson and her development from baby witch to singing beauty. It’s a step forward, I’ll admit. Where are we to uncover the next generation of performers if not from our youth? But too much of a good thing can be bad. And too much of a mediocre thing can be worse.
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures