Childstar reveals child actors as cogs in Hollywood’s machine

Childstar reveals child actors as cogs in Hollywood’s machine

A periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.

There is a wonderful episode of The Twilight Zone called “It’s A Good Life” that was later adapted for the big screen by Joe Dante in Twilight Zone: The Movie and spoofed in a Simpsons Treehouse Of Horror segment. It features a seemingly normal 6-year-old boy played by Bill Mumy who is actually a mutant with terrifying telekinetic powers that cause the adults in his orbit to cower in terror of his rages. These bullied grown-ups live in mortal fear that their actions, words, or thoughts will accidentally do something to displease the little boy, and they will be exiled to a “cornfield” of the damned, never to be seen or heard from again.

The episode acknowledges the inconvenient truth that, in spite of the cloying depictions offered by Hallmark and Disney, children are not inherently innocent; on the contrary, they can be petty, cruel, vicious, and unfeeling. At times, there is no one in the world crueler than an 11-year-old; we may revere adults who maintain a childlike sense of wonder about the world, but there’s a reason words like “childish” and “immature” have negative connotations. 

Perhaps part of the reason the ironically titled “It’s A Good Life” endures is because, consciously or unconsciously, it doubles as an eloquent allegory about the way we treat and mistreat child stars. We afford them a level of power and privilege wildly disproportionate to their age or genuine achievements, then feign surprise when they abuse that power.

Being rich and famous does not, alas, confer magical powers upon child stars. If it did, Justin Bieber would probably be levitating the pyramids or flying over the Eiffel Tower. But it does give children with developing minds, rapacious appetites, and little in the way of maturity or humility just about every non-super power. It grants children who are encouraged to be narcissistic, egomaniacal, and self-absorbed the power to make adults tremble before them. We turn children into monsters, then recoil at how monstrously child stars behave. Considering the grotesque way they are socialized, the real question isn’t why some child stars go bad; it’s why all child stars don’t flame out spectacularly. There are kiddie icons who go the way of Sarah Polley rather than Danny Bonaduce, but they seem less numerous.  

I thought a lot about “It’s A Good Life” while watching 2004’s Childstar, a knowing and deeply empathetic dark comedy from Don McKellar, a Canadian cult figure best known for his supporting turns in the films of fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan, and for starring in the 1992 cult comedy Highway 61, which he also co-wrote. 

McKellar, who also co-wrote and directed, stars in Childstar as a struggling arthouse filmmaker whose life and career are speeding nowhere fast. His wife has left him, he recently left a job teaching film, and he has to work day jobs to support his expensive, complicated, and decidedly non-lucrative filmmaking habit. 

Hungry for a paycheck, McKellar picks up a job as a driver for a 12-year-old child star (Mark Rendall) who rose to prominence playing the son of Alan Thicke on a nauseatingly precious sitcom. As the film opens, Rendall is being pitched as the star of a family movie about the rascally son of a sitting president (a hilariously obtuse Michael Murphy) who is called upon to lead the country and save his father after his father is kidnapped by European terrorists. In one of the film’s sharpest gags, this flag-waving tribute to the resilience of the American spirit is, of course, filmed in Toronto. 

Rendall flies into Toronto alongside mother Jennifer Jason Leigh, a dedicated parasite who convinces herself she’s not a stage mother like all the other grasping opportunists because she prefers a laissez faire approach to motherhood. Instead of smothering him with things like “love” and “attention,” her son can do whatever the hell he wants as long as the money and complimentary gift bags keep rolling in.

As the mother of a child star, Leigh speaks in the self-satisfied purr of someone used to getting what she wants, including the sexual favors of McKellar. Depending on one’s perspective, he is either promoted or demoted from driver to tutor after Rendall’s other tutors quit in disgust. Eventually McKellar becomes a strange father figure and mentor to a young man in desperate need of supervision and guidance, no matter the source. 

Rendall is arrogant, demanding, and impatient, but it’s because his personality has been molded by the inhuman pressures of his curious profession. Rendall may be obnoxious, but when he tells McKellar that after working hard all day, he just wants to relax in his trailer, he seems somewhat justified. Child actors are expected to do the exhausting work of adults and get paid accordingly, then do the thankless work of children in what little spare time the business affords them. That’s why former child stars tend to either crack dramatically under the pressure or develop an inner strength that allows them to be world-conquering titans like Ron Howard or Jodie Foster.  

Rendall is surrounded by parasites, like an actor fresh out of rehab who asks his 12-year-old co-star if he “parties” within minutes of meeting him, then does the big-brother thing and hires an actress/model type to relieve him of his virginity as a “welcome to Canada” present. The kid also has to deal with a studio executive who warns his superiors that Rendall is a “ticking time bomb,” referring to the rapidly approaching moment when adolescence hits like a neutron bomb and transforms adorable children into awkward teenagers, as well as—perhaps most insidiously—a mother and father (Eric Stoltz) who will do anything to keep the money train operational, even if it means sacrificing their son’s childhood at the altar of fame and wealth. 

As director, McKellar favors long takes shot from a pronounced distance, an approach that underlines just how insignificant the characters are in the grand scheme of things. They’re mere cogs in the machinery of Hollywood moviemaking at its most nakedly cynical and mercenary, day players in a drama not of their own devising. Childstar’s smart deconstruction of the moviemaking process at times recalls Day For Night, albeit without that film’s swooning romanticism. Rendall grows more sympathetic and multi-dimensional as the film proceeds, and the sneering entitlement of his early scenes are replaced by vulnerability and desperation as he bumps up against the limits of his power and undergoes some agonizing and surprisingly touching growing pains. 

A funny, smart, poignant film that displays a love-hate relationship with the dirty business of making movies, Childstar is scathing and incisive in its take on the warped values of show business and the psychological damage that the business inflicts on fragile souls. But what really sets it apart is an unexpected generosity of spirit. Hollywood satires are frequently inhabited by broad stereotypes that have grown dusty and stale from overuse, but Childstar instills its schemers and strivers with rare and welcome humanity. 

Just how bad is it? It’s quite good. A real sleeper. 

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