It's so easy to sentimentalize children in movies and on television - and doing so robs them of some of their humanity. Three important films this week look at childhood through the lens of adult sensibilities. But only one of them sheds much light on the uniqueness of little girls.
Blonde (CBS, May 13 and May 16, 9-11 p.m.) begins in Marilyn Monroe's early childhood, a nightmare that damaged and haunted her until her death in 1962. Based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, it fictionalizes the star's life. But the only light it sheds on the poor woman is dim indeed.
Shy, insecure Norma Jean Baker was exploited, celebrated, and abused by studio executives, three self-absorbed husbands, and a wide variety of other people. A lot of her sexual promiscuity is disturbingly linked to her neediness and to male selfishness.
The film makes the case that the reasons she allowed these men to hurt her was buried in her childhood - a glaringly absent father, a grandmother who died abruptly, and a schizophrenic mother who tormented her. When her mother is institutionalized, Norma Jean is placed in an orphanage, languishing there before finally entering foster care.
Married at 15 to a 20-year-old, she longs for children. And maybe if she had had them, she could have salvaged her life.
Instead, she becomes film star Marilyn Monroe. As the movies themselves tell us time and again, from "All About Eve" (in which Monroe had a small but sparkling role) to "Notting Hill," film-star fame can be tough on almost anybody.
Poppy Montgomery's performance as Monroe is consistently fine - she manages to capture something of Monroe's terror and pathos within her pronounced mannerisms. When Ms. Montgomery looks into the camera to tell Monroe's secret thoughts, it is disquieting because it seems so authentic.
But there's something wrong with this picture, too. Monroe was a grown-up who made desperately bad choices - and she was a lot smarter than she pretended. The film wants us to see her as victimized without granting her the autonomy of an adult. Monroe is still a victim of her celebrity.
One of the things that is so troubling about Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen (HBO, May 13, 10-11:30 p.m.) is knowing how the ghastly values associated with cheesy beauty contests can affect women as they grow up. There is no question but that these little girls are sexualized. This involving documentary about 5-year-old pageant winner Swan Brooner stirs up memories of JonBenet Ramsey.
Swan spends much of her life in an unnatural discipline - weeks of grueling training, from song-and-dance routines to runway modeling. Swan's mother, Robin Browne, coaches her, spending a fortune on makeup and costumes to turn a small child into a sex symbol. She gives rewards and withholds affection, bullies and cajoles, according to Swan's performance. She neglects her other children (one of whom is in trouble with the law), and yet they all love Swan.
Robin is willing to work three jobs, if necessary, to keep Swan competing. She looks on the family's sacrifices as somehow worth it. What is obvious is how badly Robin needs Swan's success. The other mothers on the circuit have the same ambitions.
One of these women tells the camera that her daughter is "someone" when she wins - "she's not a nobody." And the little girls are taught to lift their eyebrows in a pasted smile, flirt with the judges, and "strut their stuff."
But the film leaves too many questions unanswered. The child herself never talks about how she feels when she loses - or wins. Where does her obsession to win come from? Does she miss playing with her brother? Does she get tired or hungry? Is performing the best way to keep her mother's attention? Is celebrity a drug?
There are better ways to grow up fast.
My Louisiana Sky (Showtime, May 13, 8-10 p.m.), based on the novel by Kimberly Willis Holt, is a perceptive picture about a 12-year-old girl growing up in the 1950s. The daughter of mentally challenged parents, Tiger Anne (Kelsy Keel) is raised by her strict grandmother, who keeps her family functioning. The grandmother cares for her daughter and son-in-law with respect as well as affection.
Then Granny Jewel (Shirley Knight) receives a visit from her younger, estranged daughter, Dorie Kay (Juliette Lewis) - a successful businesswoman who brings the family a TV.
But just like Dorie Kay herself, TV disrupts the family dynamics. There's just a little less harmony, a little less consideration among the members. It's a subtle comment on the destructive nature of television.
When Jewel dies suddenly, Dorie Kay returns to handle funeral arrangements and to take young Tiger Anne to Baton Rouge for a few days, hoping she'll come and live with her there and have all the "advantages" of city life. But Tiger is no fool, and neither is her hard-working daddy, as it turns out - a man so keyed into nature that he averts a disaster for his employer.
Life asks something difficult of Tiger, and she responds discerningly. Rising to the occasion of love, she seizes hold of a kind of wisdom before her time. And though there's no sweeping action or looming evil to valiantly thwart, her challenges are real, and her response is profound and steeped in the hard facts of love. Children are capable of much more than we suppose.
It might have been all mush. But director Adam Arkin is sensitive without being sentimental. The tensions are real, and the solutions are viable. And the best thing of all is newcomer Kelsey Keel, who projects intelligence, conscience, and judgement without sinking for a second into self-conscious sugar.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor