This past week, two types of previously unseen kids stepped into the public eye, making their much-discussed debut in the eyes of the world. Though the circumstances of their arrival are far from ideal, their necessity at this moment is undeniable, their truth indelible. On the crux of inevitable change, they remind us grown-ups–in the invigoratingly uncynical way that only kids can–that there are simple ideals worth pushing towards. These are the children who believe in the uncolonized, superhero-led African nation of Wakanda. These are the children who believe in a future free of gun violence.
Let me be clear: these real-life young people, in all their joy and pain, do not exist to teach jaded adults a lesson about civic duty, nor to prove a point about representation to studio executives, nor for any other agenda or talking point. Any time that kids create a shift in a cultural conversation whether by accident or through hard work, it is necessary to remember that they are still living, growing, feeling beings who should never be boiled down to a symbol or statistic.
Keeping this in mind, moments like this one–when way overdue conversations are dominating the airwaves, and a way-overdue franchise is breaking records in theaters–always inspire me to think about great representations of childhood on screen. When they manage to avoid hitting grating notes and cheesy cliches, kids on screen have long since been able to communicate simple wisdom through that peculiar clear-headed perspective which seems to come so naturally during childhood and so fleetingly afterward. Unlike the aforementioned real children, these fictional kids are designed for maximum viewer impact, written at least in part to remind adults that if we peel away our own layers of ironic distance and emotional fatigue, we too are capable of powerful, tough stuff like (bear with me here) hope, imagination, honesty, and self-acceptance.
Now that you’ve made it through that last sentence and hopefully taken off your too-cool-for-school hat, let’s talk about one of the best American movies to exemplify a kid schooling adults about everything that matters: Almost Famous. They might not admit this on the record, but nearly everyone I’ve ever met who is working in the arts holds Cameron Crowe’s earnest love letter to rock and writing dear to their heart. The fascination is understandable: the 70s-set coming-of-age film is a wide-eyed, ego-free take on fame, pop culture, and loving something so much it hurts. And because the young protagonist Will (Patrick Fugit) truly believes that his lofty dreams can outweigh any disappointments he’ll face, he comes away from an overwhelming and sometimes depressing experience with a pure-hearted love of music intact.
Of course, folks who have been around the block a few times may say that Will’s persistent optimism in Almost Famous is bred from naivety rather than any legitimate insight. Many in recent months have made similar remarks about young people who are excited about Black Panther, #TimesUp, and countless other movements and moments which have no doubt been made richer because of the involvement of enthusiastic young supporters. This reading of Almost Famous–and of Little Miss Sunshine, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and any other movie with a child who maintains hope in the face of tribulations both big and small–is dismissive and narrow.
Acts of resilience, compassion, or hope don’t have to be perpetual in order to jolt us awake–out of the everyday autopilot of a life unexamined–like a splash of ice water to the face. We don’t need to know whether or not Patrick Fugit’s character in Almost Famous ended up winning a Pulitzer or flipping burgers for a living in order to appreciate the tentative wonder in his voice when he asks, “What do you love about music?” and his onetime-idol answers, “To begin with, everything.” In this sense, it’s not naivety that fuels the worldview of the memorable kids who populate the movies we love, but truth-telling, pressurized by narrative circumstance into something bright and beautiful.
The proverbial “mouths of babes” aren’t a cure-all for the world’s ailments–on screen and off, even the most profound meaning can be torn down as thoroughly as it’s constructed–but like all the best parts of cinema, well-portrayed children are a tonic for the soul. Think about The Florida Project’s Moonee, pointing out that tipped over trees can still grow. Think about Moonlight, Chiron floating on his back, trusting Juan with the weight of his body in the endless ocean. Think about Truffaut’s spinning amusement park ride and John Hughes’ detention dance sequence and Ofelia’s belief in Pan and his Labyrinth and Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy saying, “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.” Then, if after all this you’re willing to fully give up the pretense that adults know the world any better than kids do, try to isolate the feeling within the thought, and carry it with you for awhile.