Any movie featuring children under 10 is a movie wherein documentary bids to trump fiction and behavior can eclipse acting. The 1934 New Deal flag-waver Stand Up and Cheer! will remain ever fresh for featuring five-year-old Shirley Temple’s precocious (and relatively unedited) hoofing alongside genuinely incredulous veteran vaudevillian James Dunn.
Kid performers naturally introduce elements of magic and mystery into the most banal of situations. They are most resonant, however, when their characters are compelled to fend for themselves—childhood as an existential condition—as in Morris Engel’s The Little Fugitive (1953), Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995), Jacques Doillon’s Ponette (1996), or, opening this week at Film Forum, So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain.
Actually, Treeless Mountain, an American indie made in Korea, doubles the condition by featuring two round-faced, bright-eyed children. Already a latch-key kid with a distracted, prematurely worn mother, six-year-old Jin (Hee-yeon Kim, no relation to the director) is uprooted, along with her younger sister, Bin (Song-hee Kim, unrelated to both), and left in a distant town to stay with a gruffly alcoholic “big aunt,” while mom goes in search of the girls’ feckless father.
Less mean than selfishly irresponsible (particularly as compared to Jin), Big Aunt complains about her charges, spends their food money on rice wine, sends them out to beg the neighbors for salt, uses a playground scratch to extort cash from other parents, and occasionally goes AWOL. She also neglects to enroll the girls in school—leaving them even more to their own devices. Resentful but resourceful, Jin and her sidekick cadge treats from the nice mommy of a mentally retarded boy living next-door, and then go into business—catching and roasting grasshoppers to sell to other children as snacks.
The girls accumulate coins and carefully deposit them in the piggy bank that is the signifier of their mother’s return. She left it with them, explaining that she would be back when it was full. As literal-minded as these two extremely well-behaved children are, they assume that changing their large-denomination coins for a fistful of smaller ones will hasten the happy day. Their magical thinking is perfectly pitched. Like Kim’s previous film, In Between Days, about a teenaged Korean girl recently arrived in North America, Treeless Mountain is at least emotionally autobiographical. (The filmmaker says she was similarly deposited when her mother immigrated to the U.S.)
Predicated on the natural resilience of their pint-size protagonists, kid-perf movies are necessarily affirmative. (As Lillian Gish says of her little charges in the not-unrelated, but considerably darker, Night of the Hunter: They abide.) Treeless Mountain is no exception to this rule, although it’s also canny enough to resist musical cues or other forms of overt emotional manipulation. Even when the children have been doubly abandoned, dumped by Big Aunt at their maternal grandparents’ farm, Treeless Mountain is skillfully unsentimental—because of, but also despite, the presence of two irresistible, unself-conscious performers in virtually every scene. The children are almost always shot in close-up. The tight focus on the girls gives the film a pleasingly spare quality even as it allows the filmmaker to assemble their performances shot by shot. (As an exercise, it suggests the way that the sound mixers on Guys and Dolls painstakingly dubbed tone-deaf Marlon Brando’s songs, note by note.)
Taking its title from the barren mound of dirt overlooking the bus stop where the girls last saw their mother, Treeless Mountain is a careful construction. Indeed, the movie is so closely edited that one is never quite sure how much time has elapsed since the kids were abandoned. But then, that’s part of the pathos—neither do they.
The kids are most definitely not all right in The Informers. This lurid trash compacter—directed by Gregor Jordan from Bret Easton Ellis’s 1994 novel—is set in haute Los Angeles during the early years of the Reagan Era. With its crass, sleek brand of alienation, the movie might have been shot back then as well.
As the novel’s two grottiest characters—a vampire and a child-mutilator—have been written out of the script by Ellis and Nicholas Jarecki, The Informers is mainly a spectacle of privileged, pretty young people (and youthful actors) acting badly. Nights of omnisexual anomie, days of robotic synth-music videos, druggy excess, teenage orgies, and (as this is an ’80s allegory) a virulent mystery infection: Are these kids truly depraved or just fucked up? Bad parents? Too much television? A toxic environment? Peering out down the galactic sprawl as his plane comes in for a landing at LAX, a perpetually stoned Billy Idol–type (Mel Raido) is heard to plaintively mumble, “I used to live here, didn’t I?” You know you’re in Los AngEllis when a pool boy plucks a dead rat out of the drain.
Playing a tragically married couple of Tinseltown aristos, Billy Bob Thornton and Kim Basinger bring a weary measure of taut musculature and grown-up professionalism to the movie. Basinger’s erstwhile ’80s co-star, Mickey Rourke, is on hand as a dissolute prince of darkness; most lizardly in a leather porkpie hat, an orange tan, and some scraggly D’Artagnan-style facial shrubbery, Rourke elevates the movie’s sleaze count even as he deflects his scenes toward narcoleptic comedy. Winona Ryder provides another odd flashback, in the role of Thornton’s newsgal mistress. So does Chris Isaak, his leer polished to a blinding sheen, as the worst of the hideous parentals, having hauled his son off to the beach at Waikiki for some competitive jailbait cruising.
There’s plenty of incident, but not much plot. As befits a tale of absolute self-absorption and unconscious revelation, The Informers often seems to be telling on itself. “It’s a fucking video, man,” one mixed-up kid explains to another—or is it vice versa? “It doesn’t need to make sense—it only needs to be . . . not lame.” And what could be lamer than the ensuing instance of confessional direct address? “You just can’t make it in this town unless you’re willing to do some awful things,” the most confused of the young people informs someone he barely knows, pausing for a beat before he adds, “I’m willing.”