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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Confronting the horror of throwing kids in...

Screen Grabs: Confronting the horror of throwing kids in cages

Plus: Inspiring eco-youth in 'Blueback,' devastating grooming in 'Palm Trees and Powerlines,' snitty brats in 'Children of the Corn'

There have always been a lot of movies aimed at children, but seldom very many about them that do much more than pander to escapist fantasy or grownup sentimentality. A couple unusually fine exceptions, both current Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar nominees—the Belgian Close (which we reviewed here) and The Quiet Girl (here) are currently in theaters. This week brings several more new films placing subadults front and center, albeit otherwise running a wide gamut in theme, style and worthiness.

The Trump White House quickly normalized weekly, sometimes daily fiascoes, any number of which might individually have sunk a less chaotic administration. But one issue that did manage to stand out even amidst the constant shitstorm was the whole “kids in cages”/“Zero Tolerance” thing, in which demonizing Latin American border-crossers opened the floodgates to egregiously inhumane practices even many conservatives found distasteful.

It is true (as Trump’s defenders frantically noted) that “family separation” existed as a theoretical option before that POTUS held office. But it was almost never utilized before Twitler’s minions (notably “Reich stuff” exemplar Steven Miller) made it a default policy applied to unlucky thousands. Even beyond the trauma of kids torn from parents in an alien setting—if you can get beyond that—the administration’s comingled sadism, indifference and ineptitude not only placed children in some appalling sub-prison conditions, but failed to keep records as they were transferred from one location to another. Those juveniles were often “lost” for periods that in some cases still haven’t come to an end, years later.

Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s documentary Split at the Root, which begins streaming on Netflix this Fri/3, examines specific attempts to repair the damage done by that particular clusterfuck. It’s primarily about Immigrant Families Together, a nonprofit that started as an emergency network of (mostly) women volunteers across the US, expanding and formalizing organizationally as the crisis rolled on. The initial goal was just to provide legal counsel, transport, bail bonds, and other temporary logistical assistance to parents desperate to reunite with their children while awaiting decisions on their applications for asylum. But as COVID slowed down an already overburdened, often arbitrary and hostile government system, IFT took on additional burdens to sustain its in-limbo clients.

This is not an overview of the whole, rabidly-politicized immigration issue, in which it’s usually overlooked that a.) such border crossings are only a misdemeanor offense under US law, and b.) many asylum applicants aren’t just fleeing economic hardship, but political violence or organized-crime threats. Nor does it offer more than cursory big-picture surveying of just what Trump & co. did in this department—for a deeper view, read Jacob Soboroff’s 2020 book Separated: Inside an American Tragedy. Instead, the focus here is on a few representative cases, the frequently dismaying institutional challenges they face, and the dogged support offered by IFT personnel. The latter certainly prove that it is still possible to “make a difference,” no matter how entrenched the opposition is. (And last week’s policy news made it clear that the Biden White House isn’t a huge improvement in that regard.)

A more recently acquired talking point for conservative hysteria is “grooming,” a term now used to imply that pretty much anyone to the left of Lauren Boebert MUST be a pederast, or jonesing to become one. (Never mind the examples of, say, vacation-provider-to-the-underaged Matt Gaetz, let alone late Trump BFF Jeffrey Epstein.) Such thinking tends to cloud and trivialize the less-sensational dangers of sexual abuse that do lurk around us. One of the best recent dramatic treatments of real-world predation is Palm Trees and Power Lines, a deserving prize-winner at the 2022 Sundance Festival that’s finally getting released over a year later.

Jamie Dack’s first feature is a knowing portrait of the kind of suburban life that can feel like a living death, especially when you’re a 17-year-old whose every cell screams for growth and encouragement. Lea (Lily McInerny) tries to dumb herself down to the level of rather awful bestie Amber (Quinn Frankel) and their equally stupid, shallow friends, but she’s too shyly intelligent for that to work. At home, her single mother (Gretchen Mol) is a morass of self-pity, more sulky teenager than the adolescent she’s ostensibly raising. No wonder Lea winds up easy pickings for Tom (Jonathan Tucker), who rescues her in an awkward public moment—she’s being scapegoated for her peers’ thoughtless delinquency—then insinuates himself further. He may be twice her age (at least), but he’s handsome, sexy, makes her feel special and “mature.”

Lea is too naive, and needy, to heed myriad warning signs: Not when it turns out Tom’s current “home” is a motel room, not even when a waitress tells her flat-out that he frequently “comes in here with… girls.” Though it is a mite overlong at 110 minutes, Palm Trees’ slow buildup pays off in maximum creepout as we, and she, realize just what this truck-stop Prince Charming is really after. Dack lays out the path of manipulation in painfully credible terms, never laying on any melodrama or overt moralizing. The result is all the more devastating—and discomfiting as it is, should be required viewing for anyone’s teenage daughter. The film opens Fri/3 at theaters including SF’s Presidio.

This current year’s Sundance included Robert Connelly’s Blueback, a much less traumatic coming-of-age saga based on Australian writer Tim Winton’s 1997 novella. In the present tense, Abby (Mia Wasikowska) is a marine biologist called back to her coastal hometown near Perth after her mother suffers a disabling stroke. In flashbacks, we see mum (Radha Mitchell) as a firebrand of eco-activism combatting reckless local developers, poachers, and polluters, a torch duly passed to her only offspring. They’re both enthusiastic divers; the title refers to a giant groper (actually a winsome practical-FX creation) Abby “befriends” as a child, then repeatedly encounters in the nearby ocean depths over the years.

Connelly had a hit last year with another literary adaptation, of Jane Harper’s The Dry. This largely aquatic followup to that outback mystery lacks its firm narrative grip, being structurally complicated without a lot of momentum, or a clear sense of the audience it’s aiming for. (It might play best for tweens.) Nonetheless, it’s a pleasant watch, with plenty of spectacular underwater photography and some good performances, especially from Mitchell. It opens at the Smith Rafael Film Center Fri/3.

If Abby’s adventurousness and environmental conscientiousness from an early age provides good “role model,” her laughable opposite number is Eden (Kate Moyer), the little terror who turns rural kids into a lynch mob in Children of the Corn. The same-named 1977 Stephen King story was previously made into a 1984 feature that wasn’t good, but financially successful enough to launch a long series of worse direct-to-video sequels (nine of them!) you probably never heard of. This latest incarnation is not a remake but a “prequel,” purporting to tell how the original story’s farm town came to be controlled by a cult of murderous juveniles. Directed by Kurt Wimmer, it has sat on a shelf since late 2020, and you will soon understand why.

This grain-belt horror wants to be eco-conscious too, like Blueback. But it ends up handling that agenda in a fashion similar to the way the catastrophic 2006 Wicker Man remake attempted to be kinda-sorta “feminist”: i.e., so stupidly that all concerned end up covered in shame. Experimental pesticides have destroyed the corn crops that Rylstone, Nebraska depends on. While the responsible adults point fingers at one another, their children simply blame all adults. The ringleader in what rapidly becomes a ludicrous killing spree (how do these tots constantly subdue large, resistant grownups?) is creepy Eden, who seems to be under the spell of a supernatural power embodied by the eventually seen He Who Walks Behind the Rows. It’s a giant walking plant monster, a CGI equivalent to the mobile tree stump that strangled people in 1957 drive-in camp classic From Hell It Came.

None of this makes much sense, and by all rights ought to be an unintentional-comedy bonanza. Yet its almost unbelievable awfulness is somehow more painful than fun. You’re always taking a big risk using child actors as villains, as they can’t be expected to summon the required “evil” gravitas. Moyer comes off as no more scary than Peanuts’ Lucy, a harrumphing snippy brat, even as she’s overseeing graphic dismemberments amongst those who’ve “sinned against the corn.” But it’s her movie—possibly the worst Stephen King-related screen enterprise since the man himself directed Maximum Overdrive—that should be repenting. It opens in theaters (mostly suburban ones in the Bay Area) Fri/3, then begins streaming on genre platform Shudder March 21.

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