Here’s how an 11-year-old French girl describes the future. “There are flying cars, dogs who eat screws and batteries, and aliens have captured the world,” she gushes. But then she slows, thinks harder, folds her arms, kicks her legs in their black leggings. Inspiration strikes: “And every human being has a huge house, and human beings don’t have to do anything because the robots do everything.”
Her forecast is paranoid and utopian, imaginative and shopworn, a goony improvisation and possibly revelatory in the manner of play-therapy. Rather than explore it, or ask a follow-up, director/interviewer Genevieve Bailey just cuts away, to another kid elsewhere in the world, talking about wanting to grow up to be an actress.
Bailey’s I Am Eleven travels the world, pointing the camera at 11-year-olds and just letting the kids rip. She favors contrasts over context, presenting her subjects in a restless montage that never lets up. The thoughts of an Aboriginal girl in a Melbourne housing complex might be followed by those of Goh or Jack, kids in Thailand astride elephants, or the Swedish boys, both Muslim, who want to be rappers one day. Jianfang in China shows off pigs, horses, and chrysanthemums; a global-minded French boy declares, “I love snakes, and I don’t like racist people at all.” The States are well represented by a Georgian boy who, after reading National Geographic, wants to grow up to be a scientist — although he acknowledges that he won’t be able to crack cold fusion by himself.
“I wanted to make something energetic, optimistic, universal, and real,” Bailey announces in voiceover as the movie begins. She’s certainly accomplished that, but it’s too bad she didn’t also aim for vital, illuminating, or consistently compelling. She cuts from kid to kid so quickly that we rarely get the chance to feel we know them, and I Am Eleven devotes too little time to the circumstances of a child’s life in, say, India or Bulgaria. (The kid from the latter sports an eyepatch and says he would fight anyone anywhere “for love.”) One wrenching surprise works its way in in spite of Bailey’s approach: Shy Siham, in Morocco, answers questions about herself, but is continually interrupted by a local woman just offscreen, presumably her mother: “Tell her we don’t have electricity.”
“Why?” Siham ask, beaming but nervous. “Do you think if I tell her she will connect the electricity?”
The woman continues: “Tell her your family is poor. Your father is a laborer. Whenever someone needs him, they call him, otherwise no income. Tell her . . . the women cannot work.”
Siham obliges, telling Bailey some of this stuff, but both subject and interviewer seem more comfortable once the conversation turns back to the young girl’s hobbies. (“Study, sport, and travel.”) Even while facing relentless poverty, kids say the darnedest things.
Just how little I Am Eleven reveals about the kids is laid bare by the movie’s unfortunate website. Here’s actual captions from some of its striking photos of these kids: “Siham is from a small village in Morocco where she lives with etc etc.” “Goh lives in the former capital of Thailand Ayutthaya with his family and elephants etc etc.” That dummy text — the first thing I found online when searching for Siham — is, sadly, what most viewers of the film will walk away with.
Any isolated 10 minutes of I Am Eleven would make for excellent viewing. (Witness the charming girl in India who says, “I didn’t know what an interview was before.”) But heaped together into a feature, these brief introductions prove frustrating, unrevealing of any greater truth, and weighed down by the soundtrack’s jaunty ukuleles, which too often suggest those commercials where banks insist they’re as unique as you are.
Bailey’s thesis is that 11 is the age “when the world feels big in a good way — and at our feet,” and her film plays as a meditation on that simple idea. I use the term “meditation” advisedly: I Am Eleven asks you to sit in the dark and contemplate an upbeat idea for 90 minutes, even as the world — in the form of poverty, inequality, and the commands of that offscreen woman — batters against it.
She’s dedicated, and she sticks with it. No matter how interesting the world around these kids might seem, Bailey’s always ready to shut it out and move on to etc. and etc.