Cinema and childhood are intrinsically linked. There is something very special about the films that we discover as children and those first introductions to the experience of sitting in a darkened theatre that stay with us forever. The joyous nostalgia that has us returning to the films of our childhood time and time again is the same joyous nostalgia that is often invoked when audiences watch films about childhood.
When a story is told from a child’s perspective, it allows for an altogether different kind of storytelling. This can be one that is filled with an innocence and naivety that often corresponds to joy and wonder. This can also be one where more difficult topics, like bereavement and war, are explored and tried to make sense of. Regardless of which path is taken, it cannot be denied that children view the world differently to adults. Yet children also do not view the world so differently that audiences find these films unrecognisable – such is the effectiveness of employing such a device. A story told through the eyes of a child is one oft used by filmmakers and has seen many wonderful films given voice. This method of filmmaking is a versatile one and can be applied to any genre. As such there are many recent films which join this much appreciated category.
In March 2020, Kenneth Branagh started working on a film that he would call the “most personal” of his career. Set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and told from the perspective of young Buddy, Belfast is based on Branagh’s own childhood.
Belfast is an incredibly evocative film, a love letter to childhood and family, and letting Buddy tell the story really allows the poignant nature of the film to shine through. There are moments and people that we encounter as we grow up and often it is not until we are much older that we realise how influential those moments and people were. Through Buddy, the audience becomes a young child again reliving both the heartrending and heart-warming events that happen when we are young. In Belfast, Buddy experiences a lot of firsts – his first experience of war, his first love and his first grief.
Another film which looks at grief using the perspective of a child is Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman, a film which follows Nelly and her family after her grandmother passes away and they travel to her house to clear it out. Grief is of course a universal theme and one that is at the core of many films. What is really interesting about using eight year old Nelly as the protagonist of Petite Maman is that the audience learns that grief experienced as a child is not all that different to grief experienced as an adult. One thing that Nelly really worries about is whether she said goodbye to grandmother. Even after her mother reassures her that she did, Nelly isn’t convinced because she didn’t say goodbye properly.
Regardless of whether you are eight years old or eighty, if you said goodbye or how you said goodbye are the types of questions that can haunt a person. The fantastical way in which Nelly explores her grief enables the audience to explore a number of interesting questions. What would you do if you could see your lost loved one again? What were your own parents like as children? And what would you say to them if you met them when they were young? Portraying the film from Nelly’s point of view also shows that children don’t necessarily fill silence in order to block out sad thoughts the way that adults do, allowing them to process grief and be thoughtful about it. This is a profound way to demonstrate that perhaps we can still learn a lot when we view life the way a child does.
A subject in which audiences are arguably taught some of the most important life lessons are those that pertain to family and familial relationships. One film that is steeped in such lessons is that of Encanto. Though the child at the heart of this film is older than the children the audience follows in Belfast and Petite Maman, the film is still very much told from the viewpoint of someone who is still growing up and learning about the world.
Mirabel is the only person in her magic filled family who does not possess a special gift. Whilst those around her perform the most incredible feats from everything to super strength and communicating with animals, Mirabel works hard to establish her own role within the family and tries not to let her differences bother her.
Encanto is about something that is so incredibly relatable and feasible – finding your place, fitting in and feeling different. This can often be applied to family and family dynamics, but it can also be related to so many other factions of life. Precious few of us can honestly say that not once have we struggled with who we are or how others perceive us. Mirabel is every one of us and her journey speaks to the entirety of the audience.
When a film is told through the eyes of a child, there is something so intrinsically appealing about it. The universal appeal of these films boils down to something quite simple – we were all children once and frankly though we get older, do we ever really grow up? Children have fears, worries and stresses just as adults do. Children experience love, grief and family issues just as adults do. There is something about seeing these life events and experiences through our younger, more innocent selves that helps us make sense of them or at least helps us feel less alone. Whilst there is often a nostalgic comfort in these films that remind of us our childhoods, there is also an allegorical quality to them and the resulting feeling upon watching such films is that of leaving the cinema more whole than when we first entered.