Sunday, August 1, 2010
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2005)
I think I devote this space to a Canadian movie perhaps once a year an average, and the subject today is Don McKellar’s Childstar, so this might be it for 2005. I feel obliged to lamely assert I have nothing against Canadian films, but I’m also not patriotic enough to actively seek them out, so I just end up seeing whatever rises to the top of the heap. McKellar’s film opened in a couple of theatres in the usual low-profile kind of way, and it’s perplexing in the way that many Canadian films are. It’s clearly a homegrown product – explicitly set in Toronto, with familiar locations and local references. But in other ways it seems to gaze towards Hollywood, although not sharply enough that anyone down there might take note.
It’s only fair to admit many of us must envy McKellar at least a little bit. He writes, he acts, he directs – of the last decade’s more notable Canadian films, it feels like he’s associated with half of them. And he does TV stuff too. All this, and he seems like a quirky, modest kind of individual. I saw him referred to somewhere recently as Toronto’s Woody Allen. That’s a bit of a stretch, because for all his achievements, McKellar's obviously never captured our cultural focus, or seemed to define our city’s aspirations for itself, in the way that Allen did for Manhattan during his most successful period. Maybe Toronto is too diverse and sprawling ever to sustain a Woody Allen.
McKellar’s directorial debut Last Night dealt with a bunch of characters in Toronto on the last night of the world. At the time I quoted the film festival program book as follows: “Last Night transcends its epic subject matter in a way Hollywood couldn’t fathom. As we approach the millennium, nay-sayers run around whipping up hysteria with doom and gloom theories. Meanwhile, McKellar calmly asks: What would you do if it was your last night on earth?” It’s a fascinatingly contrived write-up. Last Night can only sustain its calmness by positing a totally unrealistic scenario (a world in which everyone knows it’s over at midnight, and yet there’s no sign of disease or climactic trauma or any other manifestation of how the apocalypse is going to happen). It’s made up mostly of various vignettes about family and sex and relationships, none of them equal to the apocalyptic backdrop. It’s not about the end of the world in any sense that can be plausibly extrapolated from our current circumstances (circumstances which suggest to me “whipping up hysteria” might be well-advised at this point in human history).
The write-up suggests a particular notion of Canadian film – pick a big subject (to show ambition worthy of the world stage), then dodge (to show we’re not possessed by American grandstanding). The new film Childstar does not have as big a subject, but you can see a similar dynamic at work. It depicts a 12-year-old TV star (nicely played by Mark Rendall) who comes to Toronto to make a movie (about the US president’s son stepping in to save the day when his father is kidnapped on Air Force One). McKellar plays a teacher and low-budget filmmaker who gets a job driving him around, and quickly starts up an affair with his mother (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). The kid is an arrogant little brat, but gradually starts to show his vulnerability, and asks McKellar one night to teach him about women. That night ends in the kid getting together with an actress-model (who’s been paid for her trouble), and the next day he disappears, pushing McKellar into detective mode on his trail.
As an aside, the ease with which the unprepossessing McKellar falls into bed with Leigh, and his casting himself as romantic mentor to the kid, provides another angle on the “Toronto’s Woody Allen” concept. But the film’s main preoccupation seems indeed to be no more or less than the ambiguously tragic situation of child actors – referred to in one (distinctly overblown) monologue as “sacrificial lambs of America...suffering for our sins.” Apparently McKellar got the idea in part after meeting Haley Joel Osment at an Oscar party and musing about how Osment “would never have an opportunity to enter adulthood correctly” (another character in the film is a former child star who now works as a film set gofer, haunted and screwed-up by his experiences even as – in classic style – he perpetuates the syndrome by helping to lead Rendall astray). And this in turn captures something broader about the debased focus of popular culture.
Eye magazine’s review placed the film in the context of Telefilm Canada’s recent push for more commercial projects, suggesting Childstar was calculated in part to meet the funding body’s lamebrain prerequisites while still retaining a distinctly Canadian individuality. Some aspects of the movie – like the fact that the art film made by McKellar’s character, called The Stupidity Of God, looks like pretentious nonsense – do maintain a pleasant irony. In the midsection, as the kid embarks on his odd journey, I thought it might be taking on a vaguely existential quality, and might be finding a way to leave its familiar milieu completely behind, to transform the thin cultural ingredients into something new. But it falls back to earth, and ultimately, the film’s core ambition seems as limited as that of Last Night. The film makes its peace with the Hollywood machine – taking the climax at face value (and there’s no obvious reason from what’s in the movie to take it any other way), McKellar’s character becomes assimilated in return for a few crumbs from the table. No indictments are handed out.
Turn Away, Or Attack!
Childstar is barely funny at all (a major practical problem in the comparison to peak-period Woody Allen), but it’s pleasant and it looks good. But I also wonder about McKellar’s strength with actors. Leigh’s career is faltering as it is, but here she barely registers – the film seems uninterested in her. A host of others (Dave Foley, Gil Bellows, Alan Thicke, Eric Stoltz) troops through, never delivering any specific value. The only explanation for their presence seems to be to add a mundane kind of cache. Which is a calculation from the same place that fuels our fascination with child stars.
But what is that place; what is the true nature of that fascination; is it even a real fascination (how many of us really give a hoot about the Diff-rent Strokes stars), or just a capitulation on all our parts to a discourse that’s defined elsewhere? The film shows no appetite for such questions. It seems to me Canadian film will never make much of a future for itself as long as it places itself in such callow, affable opposition to America. Either turn away altogether, or attack – that’s what I say.