Children on screen: Four dramatic new films
Scenes from the four films. Clockwise from left: Aftersun, The Quiet Girl, The Innocents, and Playground.

Until recently, films with children as the subject were generally considered a risky proposition. Child-centered cinema consisted largely of animation, action or family stories. Children were thought too immature, unable to hold the screen, unreliable actors, either over-broad or lacking nuance. They disappeared, acted inappropriately, or were swallowed up under the camera’s focus. Most often these movies reduced plot lines to didactic tropes. Children’s experiences were relegated to adults’ second-hand moralistic storytelling or even buffering kids’ on-camera appearances.

In this context the past year’s offerings are exceptional. Four strong dramatic tales of childhood, featuring child actors, have stormed Best Films of the Year lists and film festival awards. Four of these in particular have helped reshape the calculus of youth-centered cinema, presenting the issues of childhood in social realist form, examining problems for potential solutions or using their subjects to shine a light on larger social problems.

In Aftersun, a loving father of limited means and problematic mental health brings his 11-year-old daughter to vacation at a Turkish spa. Calum (Paul Mescal) and his wife have split. But he is steadfast in his responsibility to his precocious daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio). The story is told in flashback many years later by Sophie struggling to understand her father.

Director Charlotte Wells is gifted with extraordinary performances by first-time actor Corio and young veteran Mescal (Normal People), whose heartbreaking turn as Calum was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. Wells’s light-handed, fluid direction has produced a film that expresses the conflicts of parental obligation in the face of personal trauma. As Corio’s Sophie moves eagerly into a stage of exciting growth, Mescal’s Calum fights for his personal survival. Wells, Mescal and Corio all have been honored by a number of festivals and film societies for this outstanding work which lodges permanently in the viewer’s sensibilities.

The Quiet Girl is the more sedate story of Cait (Catherine Clinch). She spends the summer with her older relatives, Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) and Sean (Andrew Bennett), who quickly emerge as substitute parents. We meet Cait among her loud, rude, demanding birth family. Her mother has little time for her as she is dragooned into the care and conflict of their constantly expanding, demanding, impoverished family crowded into their tiny, shabby home. At both home and school, neglect and humiliation crush the young girl’s spirit.

Sent out to her country relatives, Cait slowly blossoms as she experiences healthy relationships and takes on farming duties. It’s an uneven progress. She encounters gossipy neighbors and has to navigate Sean’s slow acceptance. She even learns Eibhlin and Sean’s unspoken “secret” tragedy. By the time she is supposed to return to her family, Cait’s bonding with her middle-aged cousins has nurtured her growth as an independent person.

Writer-director Colm Bairead has fashioned a linear, direct narrative, rich in detail and character development. Family situations are rolled out with the rich, loving sensitivity characteristic of masterworks by Ozu and Koreeda. The Quiet Girl was nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film and won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Best International Film award, among other honors.

Children with super powers

In contrast, science fiction thriller The Innocents is a cautionary tale about dangerous interactions among children with some degree of super powers. A metaphor for the harmful social relations of their parents, the film captures children learning of their powers and experimenting with their use. Unfortunately, wisdom has not accrued with their ability to do harm.

The film is carried almost entirely by its young cast. Ida (Rakel Flottum) and her autistic sister Anna (Alva Ramstad) move into a new apartment house and befriend Ben (Sam Ashraf) and Aisha (Mina Asheim). As the children play, they discover that their abilities do not match their compassion or understanding of their playmates. The results are deadly.

Eskil Vogt, who both wrote and directed The Innocents, balances dramatic tension with the precocious humanity of his central characters.

Perhaps the most disturbingly intense of these four films is the award-winning Belgian film Playground. It’s a stark, unrelenting story of the cycle of bullying. Seven-year-old Nora witnesses her slightly older brother Abel taunted, badgered and then physically assaulted by a playground gang. He makes Nora swear to secrecy. But out of concern, and under emotional pressure, she tells her father. Soon the entire family is humiliated as events turn toxic with the unrelenting threats of physical violence and mental cruelty. Writer-director Laura Wandel has coaxed such stellar performances from her young cast that the playground plays more as a minefield of horrors than an area of physical respite from the stress of school.

Playground was selected as the Belgian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards as well as honored at the Cannes Film Festival.

We hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, please support great working-class and pro-people journalism by donating to People’s World.

We are not neutral. Our mission is to be a voice for truth, democracy, the environment, and socialism. We believe in people before profits. So, we take sides. Yours!

We are part of the pro-democracy media contesting the vast right-wing media propaganda ecosystem brainwashing tens of millions and putting democracy at risk.

Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader supported. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all.

But we need your help. It takes money—a lot of it—to produce and cover unique stories you see in our pages. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.