Aside from being three of the best American movies in recent memory, Hugo, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Tree of Life share the central theme of MOMA’s “Unaccompanied Minors: Views of Youth in Films From the Collection” series: young people discovering the world for themselves. “Unaccompanied Minors” runs in conjunction with a gallery exhibition of modernist design for children, “Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000,” though, as series curator Anne Morra was quick to point out to me, these are films in which “children make their own manifest.”
Children left on their own are a frequent subject for movies, not least because the grown-ups who make movies were, frequently, once children who were left on their own. This is certainly true of the Cinémathèque Française’s most famous foster child, François Truffaut, represented here by his feature debut, 1959’s The 400 Blows, in which the director settled adolescent scores—not least with his own conscience—through the autobiographical tale of alter ego Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud).
For Truffaut, Doinel’s ride on the amusement park’s centrifugal “Rotor” encapsulates all the nauseating elation of childhood—a metaphor perhaps suggested by 1953’s Little Fugitive, in which Brooklyn seven-year-old Joey (Richard Andrusco) goes on the lam from an imagined crime and loses himself amid Coney Island’s boardwalk attractions, an odyssey filmed with rare snapshot vérité by photographers-cum-filmmakers Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin. Fugitive heads up a fair New York City–area delegation here—not only can one hear East 78th Street’s own Linda Manz supplying the mush-mouth stream-of-consciousness voiceover that tethers Terrence Malick’s ethereal Days of Heaven (1978) to the earth, but also see short subjects including Edison’s Bronx-shot 1911 Public School Exercises and Recreation and the 1951 newsreel curio A Day at the Beach, in which tenement kids from P.S. 51 are accompanied on a charity trip to Long Beach by hammy voiceover (“. . . so you see, the drab lives of these boys and girls have been turned into real, healthy fun . . .”). The narration of 1949’s The Quiet One—“Commentary and Dialogue” by James Agee—is too achingly empathetic for such condescension, documenting the emotional reclamation of Donald Thompson, a 10-year-old Harlem boy from a broken home, who is removed to the Wiltwyck School for Boys in Esopus, New York.
Agee, who recounted his own fatherless boyhood in his posthumous 1957 novel A Death in the Family, is also represented through his screenplay for Charles Laughton’s 1955 The Night of the Hunter, dredging the same territory of loss, insecurity, naked need, and gradual, peeping hope. The child performances by Sally Jane Bruce and Billy Chapin are superlative, without a note of camera-conscious sucking up, while in the blossoming of Chapin’s trust toward new protector Lillian Gish, the same psychological acuity seen in documentary The Quiet One is merged with primal poetry.
Bruce and Chapin’s babes-in-the-woods flight from Robert Mitchum in Hunter submerges the viewer into some of the most arresting dream imagery ever put to film. That’s not the only bit of fairy-tale fancy to be seen here; effectively suppressed on either side of the Atlantic by Walt Disney and the British censors’ board (for its defaming depiction of Queen Victoria), the 1948 U.K. production of Alice in Wonderland, produced by stop-motion animation pioneer Lou Bunin, has Carol Marsh’s Alice co-starring opposite herky-jerky clay models of John Tenniel’s illustrations, here looking half-melted and so abjectly bereft of any charm or sense of wonderment that they become car-wreck captivating. Fox obscurity Zoo in Budapest (1933) is a rather more effective fantasy; the pertinent “minors” are 24-year-old Gene Raymond and 19-year-old Loretta Young. He’s a parentless child of nature raised in the titular institution, she’s a runaway orphan who escapes the workhouse on a field trip to the same, and they create a world for two in cinematographer Lee Garmes’s lambent studio nighttime. Melville Baker and Jack Kirkland’s script quietly suggests a world outside of the zoo that’s just as full of cages, while their corker of a climax unmasks nature, which had heretofore seemed only benevolent, in its full savagery.
The seductive appeal of going native is at the dark heart of 1963’s Lord of the Flies, in which British theater innovator Peter Brook works William Golding’s novel for maximum ambivalence, shooting Tom Chapin’s war-painted Jack, atop the rocky promontory on which he makes his kingdom, as the portrait of barbaric splendor. Maria João Ganga’s 2004 Hollow City likewise shows the ease with which misplaced boyish idolatry can turn to dangerous accomplicing, following N’Dala, a displaced war orphan from the countryside on his own in Luanda, Angola. Ganga’s film has more than the Portuguese language in common with Hector Babenco’s 1981 Pixote (subtitle: “Survival of the Weakest”), a totally uncompromised work in which neorealism verges onto neo-surrealism, its frying-pan-to-fire diptych structure divided between institutional and street life in contemporary Brazil, starring Fernando Ramos Da Silva, a 10-year-old favela kid who wouldn’t live to see 18. As Ms. Gish puts it in Hunter: “It’s a hard world on little things.”