Childhood has a lot in common with great cinema in that when you’re small, everything is new, lending everything intensity, fantasy, and vividness. A truly great movie is not just a story, it’s an experience. You get to grab Cary Grant’s hand as he saves you from going over the cliff and then you kiss him. You jump into Dick Van Dyke’s watercolors and cavort with Mary Poppins and a couple of penguins. And yet onscreen kids are often phony, unbearably grown-up and off-putting, and few movies truly capture what it’s like to be a kid. Below are some exceptions.
1. The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort is also a scary fairy tale in which Robert Mitchum plays a terrifying preacher and Lillian Gish a gun-toting fairy godmother. Shot in gorgeous black and white by Stanley Cortez, the cinematography and compositions are clearly influenced by German expressionism, and add to the dread created by that most feared of childhood monsters: The evil intruder. While usually the latter takes the form of an evil stepmother, in this case (and in the one below) the monster’s a stepfather hiding as a man of God.
2. Fanny and Alexander
Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical work gives us the opportunity to experience what it must’ve been like to be a part of a boisterous, theater family at the beginning of the 20th Century. The exuberant Christmas feast contrasts sharply with the austere atmosphere to which Alexander and his sister Fanny are exiled when their father dies and their mother remarries a cold and cruel minister. Bergman faithfully captures the joys and fears of being a young child, as well as the flights of imagination and fancy. This is one of my top ten movies of all time.
3. Night of the Shooting Stars
This Taviani brothers movie starts with a young mother recounting her memories of W.W. II in the Italian countryside to her baby and counts as a subset of a genre that could best be described as “Children During Wartime”. Nothing escapes this young girl’s watchful gaze, from the adult’s illicit sexual escapades, to their betrayals and surprising acts of courage. This one also figures in my list of top ten movies.
5. Hope and Glory
John Boorman’s autobiographical account of his London childhood during the agonizing Battle of Britain effectively captures the perils of being under siege, as well as the unexpected joy of that chaos and pandemonium can bring for a young boy. This is an oddly joyous movie that’s shot through with humor and humanity.