It started with (500) Days of Summer.
Kids dispensing advice beyond their years had never bothered me before. In fact, I was kind of drawn to it. I loved Natalie Portman’s Lou Reed-quoting Marty in Beautiful Girls and Virginia Weilder’s conniving Dinah Lord in The Philadelphia Story. And then came Chloe Moretz’s fast-talking, bike-riding 40-year-old in soccer cleats and an 11-year-old’s body, and my world crumbled.
It was too dumb to bear. Just to seal the deal, in 2011, Crazy, Stupid, Love. introduced us to a crazy, stupid romantic with a crush on his babysitter, and I knew the trope had to die.
In Crazy, Stupid, Love., Jonah Bobo’s Robbie takes the stage at his middle school graduation at a key moment in the movie, when all hope seems lost and all relationships irreconcilable, and starts ranting about the futility of love.
His premature jadedness and world-weariness was able to shake a room of adults and his divorced parents into realizing that love is worth it in the end. Nothing like the wide-eyed wisdom of youth. The only thing is, it sounds like an adult imagining what an “aw gee shucks” kid might say. There’s a way in which young heartbreak and divorce can damage a kid. It’s not this. His speech not only gets his deeply broken and complicated parents to reconcile, it also manages to diminish whatever truth the film had been building toward.
Chloe Moretz’s Rachel in (500) Days of Summer didn’t have as much storytelling weight to carry, but still managed to be superfluous and cloying in an otherwise enjoyable (to me) and emotionally resonant movie. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom is despondent and heartbroken and his grown friends are out of options, they know to call Rachel, who will ride her bike at night from god knows where to downtown Los Angeles to remind her brother that breakups aren’t the end of the world. She teases Tom at one point about Summer’s hypothetical other prospects, like Lars from Norway, who, she explains, is “just some guy she met at the gym with Brad Pitt’s face and Jesus’ abs.” Rachel’s also the one who makes cracks about gender essentialism and menstruation, and advises her adult brother that perhaps he should take another look at the relationship to realize that it wasn’t ever that great after all. Such poise!
Robbie and Rachel are devices spouting adult feelings in pint-sized bodies. Truths are not more true or funny when they come from innocents. They just become false.
There are exceptions. My fondness for Beautiful Girls might be getting in the way of objectivity, but I believe that Natalie Portman’s “old soul” Marty was supposed to be a projection of Timothy Hutton’s depression and not a real 13-year-old (although her assassin-in-training in The Professional is another thing). Kids with powers, like in Looper and The Shining, exist outside of this too. Movies that are told from a kid’s point of view (A Little Princess, Harry Potter, Stand By Me, The Sandlot … and on, and on) are also exempt. Who would actually want to watch a movie about a bunch of 11-year-olds talking like 11-year-olds? It becomes a problem when adults, who seem to exist in reality, take a knee, discredit all of their years of experience, and figure, hey, maybe this 9-year-old has things figured out.
The only tricky outlier is the child narrator. Think George Washington, Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Days of Heaven. It’s preposterous and falsely poetic, and, to be honest, I kind of hate it. It’s too cute. And, especially in the case of Quvenzhané Wallis’ Hushpuppy, it never feels like the child saying the words actually understands them. Dispensing advice and adult sentiments is one thing. Asymmetrical truisms and deeply philosophical, faux-folksy verses are another. But, the voice doesn’t necessarily have to correspond with the character, so, as long as we don’t have many more commercials ripping off this narrative technique, I can at least rationalize why it might be able to serve the story and stay separate from the truth of the character.
Or, it could just be a product of me getting older and forgetting how wise, and sometimes right, kids can be. What do you all think?