In GIFTED, a new feature that has just been released to theaters, a six-year-old girl whose mother has committed suicide becomes immersed in a custody battle between her uncle, who has been raising her, and her grandmother. The fact that she is a math wizard, a child prodigy, is irrelevant. She still is a kid, and her feelings, fears, and needs are fleshed out onscreen.
But this acknowledgement that children are fully-developed human beings was not always the case, either onscreen or in real life. Decades ago, various films put forth what then was the conventional notion about kids-- and that is that they allegedly are half-formed human beings. Because of their youth, and perhaps because they are not yet entrusted with adult responsibilities, they simply have no feelings. They could not be scarred by the everyday traumas of the world around them. All they would want is a new toy or an ice cream cone and all would be right in their worlds.
For instance, at the finale of BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN, which dates from 1950, a young girl is being dangled from an apartment window by the villain. If he lets go, she will fall to her death and, as one would expect, the child is screaming hysterically. Fortunately, she is saved and one would assume that she would suffer psychologically for her nightmarish experience. But no! She is calm and happy as she is carried off by her mother, and it’s as if the horror of her near-death experience never happened. She will not be blemished by it nor will she even recall it, simply because of her tender age.
Then in THE MARRYING KIND, released in 1952, a little boy accidentally drowns while on a family outing. His parents-- translation: the adults in his life-- are understandably distraught, to the point where they end up in a divorce court. However, what about his sister? Wouldn’t she be agitated? Well, the year is 1952 and the answer is: No! She is not allowed to put forth any emotion. In her initial screen time after the accident, she hustles her mother for a soft drink, just as any kid might. Then she enthusiastically welcomes her father, just as any kid might. And so on... Is she in any way distressed by the drowning? In a word: No!
Lastly, in 1953’s THE BIG HEAT, a cop’s wife is murdered and the cop sinks into bitterness and fury. But whatever effect this may have on his daughter, who understandably would be equally damaged, is totally disregarded. Right after the killing, the child happily requests that her father read her a story-- just as any kid might. While the father oozes anger, the daughter feels no pain. She is not allowed to express her feelings, or even inquire about the sudden disappearance of her mother.
Of course, indescribable tragedies that touch on the lives of children are nothing new. Sadly, they stretch across time. However, at least today, in real life and in films like GIFTED, the feelings of children and the often complex issues facing them are at least acknowledged.
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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