The best films about childhood are typically not for children. Instead, they're made for adults who are trying to recall—or to understand—that mysterious period between infancy and adulthood that shaped us into what we became. Three truly memorable films come to my mind, and I list them here in chronological order:
1. The 400 Blows (1959). Francois Truffaut's autobiographical classic grows in stature with each passing year, as its widescreen black and white cinematography delivers a stark vision of Paris far removed from the cafés and boulevards that are seen so frequently in other films. Jean-Pierre Léaud gives a precocious performance as Antoine Doinel, the only son of an adulterous mother and absent stepfather, whose rough treatment at school and neglect at home propel him into a life of petty crime, which causes him to be sent to a juvenile home by his uncaring parents.
This is Truffaut's first feature, and it is indeed an assured début. It's a founding film of the French New Wave of the 1950s and '60s, and like its predecessor, Italy's neorealism of the 1940s and '50s, it emphasizes realism over artifice and authentic locations over soundstages. Who cares if some of the people passing by in the street are looking at the camera? It only serves to drive home the point that the filmmakers are creating a piece about a real human being.
Léaud is unforgettable as Antoine, who serves as a stand-in for Truffaut as a child. He loves to read Balzac—so much so that an essay he writes at school is deemed plagiarism, leading to more trouble for him. He also spends a lot of time at the movies to forget his miserable life for a few magic hours.
Truffaut would make a total of four Antoine Doinel films: this one, Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). Just like a fictionalized version of Michael Apted's documentary series following a group of children from age seven through 49, they follow the life of Antoine from troubled youth to married novelist.
2. My Life As A Dog (1985). Lasse Hallstrom's utterly charming and powerfully emotional ode to childhood is, like The 400 Blows, another film that bears repeat viewing. I first saw it on its U.S. theatrical release in 1987, and I probably watch it every five years or so because it's ironically become a nostalgia piece for me, even though it's not about my childhood.
Anton Glanzelius stars as Ingemar, a young boy living in Sweden with his bullyish older brother and sick—in the medical sense—mother (Anki Lidén). What she is suffering from is never specified, but it appears to be tuberculosis. Ingemar is very close to his mother and is pained to see her health deteriorate and her ferocious fits of temper when he and his brother misbehave. The other love of Ingemar's life is his dog, Sickan.
The doctor recommends peace and quiet for their mother to recover, so they boys are sent to relatives for the summer and Sickan is shipped off to a kennel. Ingemar goes to live with his Uncle (Tomas von Brommsen) and aunt in the rural province of Småland, which is inhabited by a village full of happy people who also seem to clearly be out of their minds. Here, Ingemar gets his first taste of affection and companionship since his mother had become ill, and he revels in it.
When autumn comes, he and his brother are returned to their mother, but it doesn't last long. She is taken by ambulance to a sanitarium where she will spend her last days, although Ingemar doesn't know it. He's convinced that she doesn't want him anymore. When he returns to Småland, he's distressed to find that nobody there wants him around, either. Another thing that his relatives aren't telling him is that Sickan has (probably) been euthanized. His repeated requests to his uncle to have the dog sent for are awkwardly dodged, and when the reality of the situation becomes clear to him, his world comes crashing down around him.
Some critics complain that the Småland sequences are too corny and slapstick to fit in with the sober subject matter of the rest of the film, but I enjoy them—they're a light in Ingemar's otherwise grim life. His uncle is slowly and methodically constructing a summer house on someone else's property while playing a Swedish-language record of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" over and over again, which drives his wife insane. The elderly Mr. Arvidssen, who lives downstairs, frequently calls on Ingemar to read descriptions out of a women's lingerie catalogue to him. One of Ingemar's classmates has green hair, which is never explained. And the potential romantic interest in his life is Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), a tomboy who uses elastic tape to hide her developing breasts so that she can continue to play on the boys' football team.
Hallstrom's film is heartfelt and obviously a labor of love. It, too, benefits from lots of location work to give it that "you are there" feel. I don't think he's made a film anywhere near as good since, although What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) has its charms. But the real key to Dog's success is the magnificent performance of 11-year-old Glanzelius. With his shaggy eyebrows and impish grin, he's like a Swedish Eddie Munster, and he really carries the film. Amazingly, this is only his second appearance before the cameras, and it's hard to say if he could have had a long career because—according to IMDB—he's now a producer for Swedish reality television!
Here's Glanzelius attempting to overcome the language barrier while being interviewed in New York by a woman with serious '80s hair:
3. Léolo. "They say I am French Canadian, but because I dream, I am not. They say he is my father, but I know I am not his son because he is crazy. Because I dream, I know I am not."
By far the grimmest entry here is this 1992 French Canadian film from Jean-Claude Lauzon. The best way I can describe it is as a primal scream about the horrors of childhood. I saw it during its original theatrical release and couldn't believe what I was watching: a shocking—and shockingly beautiful—work of art.
Maxime Collin is Léo Lauzon, a boy who lives with his dysfunctional family in a squalid tenement in Montreal and preserves his sanity by living an active fantasy life in which he is not the son of his father but is in reality Léolo Lozone, child of a Sicilian peasant and destined to return to his homeland, the beautiful hills of Sicily.
As I said, Léolo's family is bonkers and they all take turns spending time in the mental hospital, except for his tough, determined and enormous mother (Ginette Reno). Both she and her husband (Roland Blouin) are obsessed with shit, constantly dosing their children with laxatives and making sure their bowel movements are full and regular.
That's just the beginning. To clinically enumerate all of the shocking and revolting scenes in Léolo would put it in a category with John Waters' Pink Flamingos, yet it all comes together to become an unforgettable sort of fetid poetry. There's a sequence in which Léo dives into a river's filthy water to retrieve tangled fishhooks and re-sell them to the fishermen that becomes, in his mind, a search for a chest full of sparkling treasure.
He calls his obese, insane sister Rita (Geneviéve Samson) "The Queen," and they share secret time in a filthy, vermin-infested space under the building where he gives her his laxatives in exchange for her shit, so he can throw it into the toilet to prove to his father that he's functioning normally.
I know...it sounds absolutely revolting and it certainly doesn't paint a pretty picture of the human condition, but just when you think you can't take any more, Lauzon throws in a scene of stunning grace and honesty that makes you swoon. And if you've got Tom Waits' "Frank's Wild Years," you've practically got the entire soundtrack album! Collin is another one of those inexperienced child actors who nevertheless manages to deliver a devastating portrayal, and with material like this, it must have been quite a challenge. Did I mention the masturbation scene with the raw beef liver?
Side note: when the Encore movie channel was launched here in the States sometime in the mid-90s, it would repeatedly air Léolo during the daytime without any kind of parental warning whatsoever. I guess the programmers saw a picture of Collin in the promotional materials, said "It's a kid's movie," and threw it on!
Tragically, Lauzon died in a plane crash in 1997, denying us the opportunity to see what other kinds of worlds he could bring to us. However, Léolo is an unforgettable, fitting epitaph.