Why ‘Caine’s Arcade’ moves grown men to tears

The short film about Caine Monroy, an East Los Angeles boy who spent his summer constructing a cardboard game arcade in his father’s auto parts shop, has won millions of fans.

When an online video goes viral, the copycat industry usually begins spinning out imitations almost as fast as the original went wide.

But “Caine’s Arcade,” an 11-minute film that has already won millions of fans, is garnering a somewhat different response. As filmmaker Nirvan Mullick says, “This is the video that is making grown men cry.”

He points to a response video that has been uploaded, showing nothing more than a man in tears as he watches the story of the 9-year-old Caine Monroy, an East Los Angeles boy who spent his summer constructing an elaborate cardboard game arcade in his father’s auto parts shop.

“This film is seriously sending people back into their own childhoods and remembering their own creativity,” Mr. Mullick says, “and remembering how wonderful it felt to have that freedom of expression.”

Sometimes, adds Mullick, it’s the father-son relationship in the film that has brought on tears. “One of the important parts of Caine’s story is the support his father gave to the project,” he says, noting with a laugh that not every parent would encourage a child to invade work space with a fantasy project. “His dad, George, even told me that he was a little embarrassed a couple of times when customers would come in the shop and here he would be trying to sell a $300 auto part and his son Caine would come in and try to hustle the guy to buy tickets to play in his cardboard arcade.”

One of Mullick’s favorite anecdotes: An artist from Fox’s “The Simpsons” came to the auto parts shop to see the arcade for himself. “He just put his head down on the counter and cried after he saw it,” he says. “He told me his own dad never gave him that kind of support.”

“This is the really wonderful thing about this story,” says Robert Thompson, popular culture expert at Syracuse University in New York. “It’s having a fantastic digital success,” he says, “but what it is celebrating is the actual value of real-world, completely nondigital creativity.”

The story speaks to the younger male set as well. Proud mom Jessi Roman posted this on the blog Mommy Anomaly: “After watching this kid's story, I decided to show it to my 10 yr old son. He's always building things out of cardboard boxes ... and Legos ... and paper ... pretty much anything he can get his hands on. I thought it would be a nice bit of inspiration for him, knowing that this kid got so much notoriety for doing something similar,” she wrote.

After shooting a video of her son Jojo and his Super Mario-themed bubble-gum machine, she wrote, “he asked if there was a way we could show it to Caine.”

They found Caine’s Facebook page and shared the video with Caine, whose site in return put out a call to anyone with a creation they wanted to share. NBC picked up on “Caine’s Arcade” and included Jojo’s gum-ball creation in a Thursday-evening news segment.

“Jojo was actually so overwhelmed by it all that he was moved to tears, telling me that I'd have to buy some more tissue,” his mom blogged, adding that “all the while, [he was] grinning from ear to ear.”

To be fair, not all men are transported equally by the narrative. “I’m a bit skeptical of the latest online hit,” says Mark Tatge, journalism professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. He warns about the downside of this fame and attention to young children, especially. “This kind of narcissism that anything they do is a reason to put up a video” is not something to encourage, he says. “Frankly, if this were my child, I would be a little worried about such obsessive behavior. I’d ask him, ‘Don’t you want to go play with some friends or go outside and play?”

But, says Mullick, this short film has given the Internet something that is in short supply. “This celebrates the good in all of us,” he says, adding, “This has made the Internet happier at a time when people are starving for something good.”

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