Siddhartha Sarma is the author of the award-winning The Grasshopper’s Run, among others, and one of those amazing people who has read every book and watched every movie and done much else besides.
List-making time. This is about five movies which, for me, best capture the meaning of childhood. But some restrictions first: we will leave out great childhood entertainers not primarily about children, such as Cars, the Toy Story series or Monsters Inc. We also will not include movies featuring children but not about childhood, which means the unfortunate omission of The Wizard of Oz and one of my all-time favourites, The Iron Giant. We might also have to leave a large part of fantasy behind, because trolls and dragons make for fascinating stories, but are not really a part of our common-or-garden childhoods. I also will have to exclude Two Brothers, another favourite, on the specious ground that it is not about human childhood. Or perhaps it is.
Here is what I am left with, and here’s why. Also, one of the characters among these fine young fellows was me, exactly and unadulterated:
The Goonies (1985): Mikey, Mouth, Data, Chunk and their associates need very little introduction, mostly because they are the sort of characters you find muscling into your stories, or your past, or whatever tiny part of your grown-up consciousness still believes in essential innocence and the greatness of ice cream. They are us, on that eternal quest to find mythical treasure, that one solution to a complicated adult world, and it is their dogged belief in just going on that we begin losing when we invent causes and abstract consequences to make us move forward. Plus, I have to be loyal to the 80s although I am mainly from the decade after. And I do realise the measure Mikey weighs out for the one-eyed pirate at the end, and why he does that. Being a kid means understanding fairness too.
Stand By Me (1986): Gordie, Chris, Vern and Teddy could just be the Goonies a year on, but not really. These are a step closer to lives stuck in small-town ennui, pop culture, running themes of dysfunctionality. I am not a big Stephen King fan, but in this adaptation of his non-spooky novella from the same remarkable collection that gave us Apt Pupil and The Shawshank Redemption, I find one of the best, unblinkered narratives of childhood and that precise moment of awareness that the wall of the world stretches a bit further than we might think. Every single one of us might have known, or hated, or been, Eric Cartman from another fictional small town, but it is people like these four that, once we have done with the whole sorry business of growing up, we realise made our childhood worth the rest of it.
War of the Buttons (1994): This is the only one among the rest that I watched much after growing up. It is also a bit of a puzzle, because there are so many iterations of Louis Pergaud’s novel based on a fractured French social structure. This version is set in Ireland, and what makes it stand apart is the utter seriousness with which the two classes of pre-teen society shown here, separated by a neatly divided bridge, prosecute their mafia-like vendetta on each other. Each scene is memorable, each bit of dialogue, inflection, flicker of the eyes, so wonderfully done that you will wonder how much was deliberate and how much not. The result is a beautiful, touching and outrageously funny story without any of the fancy flourishes and touches I find so galling in some of the better known takes on childhood in world cinema. Also, if you can find someone who holds his whisky like Little Con…but ye won’t, lads and lasses.
Come and See (1985): Remember what I was saying about movies with grown-ups meant for children? This one’s the exact opposite: a movie about childhood but meant for supervised viewing. From the pages of my least favourite New Testament chapter, but also among my often mentally-quoted lines, Revelations 6:7, Come and See is the unrolling of the heavens and earth that the good book warns us about. Through the eyes of Flyora, the boy-man-beast of the story, we see war, catastrophic and Armageddon-like, as it has seldom been portrayed. Surprisingly for a Soviet-era bit of moviemaking, this one comes as close to the truth as any essentially smoke-and-mirrors medium can get to portraying mass conflict. It is unarguably the greatest movie on war I have ever seen, and one of the finest journeys into the mind of human beings I have ever watched. The question is, how would I react to it today and not back when I was a teen when I saw it? I do not know. Perhaps some real-world experience might be held up against what this story shows. Should I have seen it back then? Certainly. But whether some other child is ready for it is an open question.
A Christmas Story (1983): Ralphie is an uncomplicated person, one of your happy fellas. He wants…let me check this…a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and “a thing that tells time”. And to get this Holy Grail for Christmas he has to run the gamut of intransigent mother, a father with the most colourful vocabulary in Indiana, a no-nonsense teacher, sundry bullies and friends. Along the way, Ralphie becomes legend, not the least because he must be the most enduring fictional kid who gets kicked in the face by Santa Claus. If you have heard of those ads which look different at adult height and at a child’s, this movie works along similar lines. There are things you will notice if you are a kid, and other layers and nuances a grownup will catch and marvel that she didn’t when watching it as a kid. I won’t tell you which part’s which. But as you follow Ralphie on his BB quest, you will remember every episode of this beautiful and hauntingly innocent tale. But trust me, there is nothing syrupy in it.
And that’s about it. There might be some others close around the mark, but we can talk about them later. Also, I seem to have mentioned somewhere that one of these characters was me, exactly. It was. Perhaps it still is.
Like I’m going to tell you.