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The Mysterious Place of Childhood
Childhood is a mysterious place. The world gradually reveals itself, sometimes in shocking ways, and powers that we could never have guessed are gradually delivered into our hands.
Often emotion is rawer, the blows are harsher, and the joy of simply living is fiercer.
Hollywood has a habit of delivering sentimentalized versions of the journey to adulthood. Wish-fulfillment fantasies like Home Alone or the Harry Potter series are great family entertainment but make no effort to get under the skin of what it means to be a child.
American independent filmmakers have delivered more realistic reflections on childhood with Richard Linklater's Boyhood as an outstanding example. From other corners of the world, come evocations of childhood as varied as as they are compelling.
Here are a selection of the best Art House films from indie filmmakers and world cinema.
Fish Tank (2009)
- Director: Andrea Arnold
- IMBD: 7.3 Rotten Tomatoes 91%
Critics compared Fish Tank to 400 Blows, probably the single most powerful film about the toughness (and possibilities) of childhood ever made.
The central character is 15 years old, fatherless and living in a public housing high-rise on the edge of nowhere. The mother is a party animal with nothing maternal to offer either of her daughters. When she brings home a man (Michael Fassbender) who has at least a few good qualities, including fatherly impulses, everything changes.
The movie does not flinch from the darkness that surrounds so many children in struggling families, but the resilience and optimism of youth makes the film a joy.
Nominated for the Palme d'Or, 2009, Winner of the Cannes Festival Jury Prize. BAFTA for Best British Film
- Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
- IMBD: 7.6 Rotten Tomatoes: 99%
Iran is portrayed as a country divided between those who want to hold onto the past at all costs and those who long for the everyday freedoms that people in the West take for granted.
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'Wadjda' expresses the tension perfectly with a winning performance from the young girl who is determined to ride a bicycle despite the disapproval of so many.
In her school, Wadjda is punished for failing to learn her religious lessons. In the playground, the older girls are swapping cosmetics and talking about boys of the kind that can ruin a young woman's life anywhere.
Wadjda is too young to be thinking about cosmetics but at least one boy is on her mind. This is her friend who has a very desirable object indeed.
It is Wadjda's sheer determination to ride alongside her male friends on her own bicycle and the joy that this freedom brings, which made the film such a feel good hit.
Awards: Boston Society of Film Critics Awards, Best Foreign Language Film. Los Angeles Film Festival 2013, Best International Feature
What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
- Director: Lasse Hallström
- IMBD 7.8 Rotten Tomatoes 89%
The film focuses on 24 year old Gilbert Grape as the carer of a mother who is incapacitated by obesity and siblings that include a disabled brother.
For an indie movie the talents on display are impressive. Gilbert Grape is played by Johnny Depp. The disabled younger brother is played by Leonardo Di Caprio. The cinematographer is Sven Nykvist, who worked extensively with Ingmar Bergman.
Many individuals, much younger than Gilbert Grape, are obliged to sacrifice their childhoods to act as carers and this portrait of the conflict between family loyalty and the desire for a life of one's own is a touching exploration of an aspect of childhood often ignored.
Ivan's Childhood (1962)
- Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
- IMBD: 8.1 Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Ivan, has lost his parents to the Nazi invasion. He is rescued and sent to a safe school, far from the front. Driven by a desire for revenge, Ivan runs away and joins, first the partisans, and then army intelligence.
The film has multiple agendas. Soviet heroism is to the fore (how else would the film have been made?) But there is unflinching realism in the portrayal of conflict.
Tarkovsky was an outsider in the Soviet Union, more in the tradition of Dostoevsky and Pushkin than Lenin and Stalin. His Christian sense of the costs of violence, and his belief that human beings, even in extremis, can retain their essential decency make for a richly layered film.
The tragic intensity of the tiny warrior, Ivan, makes many scenes unforgettable.
Golden Gate Award 1962, Best Director Venice Film Festival 1962
The White Ribbon (2009)
- Director: Michael Haneke
The setting is idyllic: the countryside of Germany before World War One. The human landscape is more challenging.
Harsh discipline mixes with great kindness, death intrudes into the security of family life, a series of terrible crimes challenge a rigid social order, conformity and desire fight for ascendancy.
The village at the center of the film is a microcosm of all the forces that children, as much as adults need to negotiate, if they are to find a place for themselves in the world.
The movie functions as a mystery, a historical document and poses many familiar questions.
Are individuals ever truly trustworthy? Can we ever truly understand the worlds that we create? Can any society based on power relationships be just?
Prizes: Palme d'Or 2010, Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
IMBD:8.0 Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Ermanno Olmi is not a fashionable film maker and his style is ponderous by modern standards. There is still a lot to be had from this long and patient examination of the lives of farmers in Lombardy.
The succeeding seasons can rarely have been photographed more beautifully. Olmi used real farmers from the region as actors, generating a high level of authenticity.
The stories from Olmi's childhood gradually wind together into a tight knot.
The price paid by the father for the education of his son is heartrending but the film never loses its elegance or gentleness.
Awards: Palme d'Or (1978) New York Film Critics Circle Awards, Best Foreign Film, 1979.
IMBD: 7/10 Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
'Lord of the Flies' depicts the descent into savagery of a group of British schoolboys, marooned on a desert island, as they fall prey to their fears and isolation.
The vulnerable 'Piggy' an overweight boy with glasses is protected by Ralph, the moral center of the piece, as a death cult develops.
Renowned theater director, Peter Brooks, stays close to the original classic novel by William Golding and paints an alarmingly credible portrait of the dark side of human nature.
Peter Brook was nominated for the Palme d'Or in 1963.
IMBD: 8 Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
The film was shot over 12 years, and follows the life of a character called Mason, from the age of five to adulthood . The actors age visibly and the boy Mason grows from dependence to independence in the enigmatic way that all children do.
Patricia Arquette received an oscar for her portrayal of a hardworking mother who makes poor choices in her relationships, favoring drunks and ne'er-do-wells.
Mason's absent father, played by Ethan Hawke, arrives periodically with his irresponbility, charm and unending surprise that Mason has not remained as he always was.
The film was one of the biggest box office hits of the year.
Awards: 3 BAFTAs, 3 Golden Globes, 1 Oscar
IMBD 7.2 Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
A mother goes to find her runaway husband leaving her two young children at home. The only company in their tiny apartment is an alcoholic aunt and a piggy bank that they hope will magically bring back their mother.
The children are beguiling, and the director shows us the world as the girls experience it, with sensitive camera work and a great eye for the telling moment.
Many small joys add up to a satisfying experience.
Berlin International Film Festival 2009 Jury Forum prize for So Yong Kim
IMBD: 8.1 Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fanny and Alexander are two children growing up in a warm, prosperous and creative theater family. It is a life filled with color and magic, until disaster strikes. Their father suffers a stroke and dies.
This is a terrible shock in itself but, soon afterwards, the children's mother remarries, choosing a Lutheran bishop. The home of the bishop is a series of bare white rooms with locks and bars to keep unruly children in, and the temptations of bohemian life, out. A cane reinforces the message.
In the hands of another director, it might be a simple morality play: fanatical puritanism is bad for the psyche. Ingmar Bergman keeps the focus on the children and in them, at least, the magic does not die. There are ghosts, imagined happenings and a reassuring mix of inner and outer reality, with the latter never triumphing.
Awards: 4 Oscars (including Best Foreign Language Film), Golden Globe, Bafta (best cinematography)
IMBD: 7.4 Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
The Dardenne brothers have won more Palme d'Or awards than anyone else.
'In Kid on a Bike' we witness a boy cruelly rejected by his father who is rescued from rage and resentment by the near-angelic, local hairdresser, and joyous cycling trips.
Awards: Grand Prix, 2011 Cannes Film Festival
IMBD: 8.0 Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
The setting is Spain in the period immediately following the victory of General Franco in the Civil War. A well-to-do family live out a quiet life in a country setting and we slowly come to understand their preoccupations and fantasies.
The father is mainly occupied with his beehives (and perhaps the order that they represent). His much younger wife dreams of her lover, a former republican soldier who is on the run.
After seeing 'Frankenstein' in the local cinema, the young daughter is absorbed in her fantasies of the monster portrayed by Boris Karloff.
Widely recognized as one of the masterpieces of European cinema it is episodic, lyrical and can be infuriatingly difficult to make sense of.
This is one for the patient viewer.
IMBD: 8.1 Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Louis Malle was one of the greatest French directors of the 20th Century and this film describes his childhood in a Catholic boarding school during World War II.
In a cold and scary world, with conflict all around him, the sensitive Louis befriends a boy who is different to his classmates. When the boy reveals that he is Jewish we are taken into a nightmare of betrayal, collaboration, and anti-Semitism.
Nominated for 2 Oscars, awarded 4 BAFTA's
IMBD: 7.7 Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Many movies about childhood are acts of rebellion. Artists overturn the reality of their parents with portraits that do no flatter.
Whether it is a harsh version of a particular religion, a social order that is too rigid and unforgiving, or a simple failure to pay attention, the film director can take revenge.
Lindsay Anderson's 'if....' is more directly subversive.
In a British school where the children of the wealthy and powerful are trained to rule, rebellion, sixties-style, brews.
Awards: Palme d'Or, Golden Globe
IMBD: 7.5 Rotten Tomatoes: not rated.
On a visual level this is a big movie. The setting is the beautiful Bosporus with golden sunshine, sparkling seas and the endless flux of the tides in the inlet where Hayat live
Sadly, Hayat, the focus of the film, is a girl adrift. Her parents are separated and most of the adults in her life are sick or incapable. Her father is a boatman and small time smuggler, who has little time for her.
Hayat is reaching an age where men are attracted to her and she is vulnerable, with neither guidance nor protection.
She has withdrawn to the point that she communicates by humming or throwing stones at the hapless seabirds.
This is a movie about the marginalized in every sense.
Reha Erdem also directed Times and Winds (2006) a study of childhood life in a harsh and remote corner of Turkey. It was justly hailed by the LA Weekly as a 'humanist epic'.
Few films deal directly with FGM but 'Moolaadé' not only confronts the practice directly it makes the long term consequences as clear as the horrors of the crude surgery involved.
The charming heroine Collé, uses magic, guile and all of her persuasive gifts to protect her daughter and a group of other girls from the attentions of the women elders.
Awards: Cannes Film Festival 'Un Certain Regard' Award. National Society of Film Critics Awards, USA, 2005
IMBD 8.2 Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Many people will be surprised by the inclusion of an animation in this list. But it would be difficult to exclude Hayao Miyazaki from any discussion of childhood and cinema.
His inventiveness, charm and humanity have made him one of Japan's most successful directors.
And, while his animations are made for children they can pack a punch.
In his Oscar winning, 2001 feature, 'Spirited Away', we are shown an alternate reality where greed turns a young girls' parents into pigs and many of those in positions of trust are incompetent, corrupt or simply lost. A few are absolutely terrifying.
'Totorro' is a simpler affair. It is the story of two girls who move to the countryside and find a gateway to another world hidden in the trunk of a giant tree.
One of the most magical pieces of cinema, in any format, ever made...
IMBD: 8.1 Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Many critics believe that this autobiographical film, created by Francois Truffaut, is the greatest film ever made.
As part of the French New Wave it helped introduce handheld cameras, direct sound and a new style of storytelling, that blew away the formalities of studio-bound production.
In '400 Blows', we follow the young Francois Truffaut as he struggles with insensitive teachers, a troubled home life, and the intervention of state authorities after he runs away.
if you have reached the point that the phrase, 'the triumph of the human spirit' has become a cliche, this is a film to rekindle your optimism.
Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay 1960, Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Director, BAFTA Award for Best Film, 1961.
IMBD: 7.8 Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
'Like Father, Like Son' deals with two families whose sons were accidentally swapped at birth.
One father is a businessman, embroiled in Japan's 'salaryman' culture, with little time for his family.
The second family is poorer but closer knit.
Should they swap the children?
The film has a light touch as it deals with profoundly difficult issues.
Nominated for the Palme d'Or 2013. Winner of the Cannes Festival Jury Prize.
Few films offer more more pleasure than this one.
It is a simple story, set in fine countryside, with good-hearted people coping deftly with a young boy's tragedy.
The boy, played, by Anton Glanzeliu, is sent to live with eccentric relatives when his mother falls ill.
A boxing match with the local tomboy seals an enduring friendship and gains him a place in the heart of the village.
The death of the boy's mother makes him identify with the dog, Laika, who was famously sent into space, totally alone and never to return.
With a little support, the boy is able to regain his appetite for life.
The director went onto make 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' described above.
Nominated for 2 Oscars. Won a BAFTA and Golden Globe.
Is There Anything to Conclude from the Films Listed Above?
For me, they prove that film making still has a central place in our lives. Great directors ask tough questions, illuminate individual lives, and, ultimately, have the power to transform audiences by creating new truths.
What more can you ask?
Sulabha Dhavalikar from Indore, India on September 02, 2016:
Fantastic. I will sure like to see - Trailor, Fish Tank, and Treeless Mountain. The reviews of other movies are also good.
Yes, films have had a deep influence on me. One particular Hindi movies that taught me to be brave was Ghulam- starring Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherjee. This movie was a turning point in my otherwise scared and confused personal life. There were other movies too- Sarfarosh -starring Aamir Khan and Sonali Bendre.
Now I am going to watch the movies whose review you have written.
Will Apse (author) on August 18, 2016:
I hope that you enjoy any that you try, Kylyssa. Please feel free to add any that you think I should have included to this comment section.
Kylyssa Shay from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on August 18, 2016:
I love the movies on this list that I've seen so I'll have to check out the rest.
Another amazing Miyazaki film about childhood is Grave of the Fireflies.