Children had it rough at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. I don’t mean that actual kids were abused. That would be inhumane, and Canadians are nothing if not exceedingly polite.
Instead, it was on-screen children in assorted features that were abducted, sold, separated from their parents, murdered or snuffed out in the womb… all for the sake of maximum dramatic effect. Of the 18 films I managed to see at TIFF, seven had subplots that involved the injury or loss of a child. That’s a trend, and a disturbing one, at that.
The rest of this column is going to dip into spoilery territory for several films that are on the calendar for the final quarter of this year. Tread lightly.
In a few instances, the loss or abduction of a child acted as the driving force of the movie’s narration. Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are pushed to the extreme when their daughters disappear on Thanksgiving Day in Prisoners. Those discussing director Denis Villeneuve’s harrowing slow burn of a thriller usually asked, “Are you a parent?” Because the inherent anger and fear that bubbles to the surface when one potentially loses a child is fodder for any film’s dramatic fires.
The same sentiment is supposed to be applied to Atom Egoyan’s The Devil’s Knot, which tells the infamous story of the West Memphis Three from the viewpoint of an Arkansas mother (Reese Witherspoon) whose son allegedly was killed by the Satanic teenagers. Except Egoyan’s such a hack of a filmmaker, his melodramatic decisions sap the inherent gut punch that comes with the murder of a child in any story. As a result of the director’s lack of filmmaking skills, Devil’s Knot hits us with a wet noodle, when it should have connected with a sledgehammer.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave isn’t about the loss of a child, per se, but it boasts this year’s most unforgettable scene regarding a parent losing their offspring. It occurs during a human auction – so you can imagine, already, the heartbreak that’s about to occur – where a woman is purchased by a plantation owner (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and begs the man to take her children, as well. Her pleas fall on deaf ears. It’s a scene I won’t soon forget.
And then there were the handful of films that waited to spring their loss-of-child motivations on us once we were settling into their grooves – the movies that blindsided us with loss. The main characters in Gravity (Sandra Bullock), Labor Day (Kate Winslet) and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) all lost their children, and are dealing with the crippling emotional ramifications of fate’s cruel hand.
Why do films go for the heart – and the jugular – by dealing with the loss or disappearance of a child in a film? Because it’s the unbeatable hand in a round of poker, the trump card that directors and screenwriters know will (or should) affect every audience member on a visceral level. If you happen to be a parent, the impact triples. But even those without kids can understand the weight of a grief that comes with an abduction, a murder, a miscarriage… you can tap into that despair, and it lends an added layer to the emotion you are trying to convey.
Why, though, are so many movies relying on it at this moment? That, I think, is a coincidence. Certain movies, like Philomena or Prisoners, worked backward from a premise of a missing child, following main characters as they jumped through complicated hoops to hopefully reunite with their missing offspring. But this is the time of year when movies aim for more dramatic, more challenging subject matter, and few topics land with such devastating force as the pain that comes from losing a beloved child.
Toronto filled its programming with characters trying to overcome the loss of a kid. Soon, theaters will fill with these same movies, and audiences members will be asked to embark on some truly difficult rides. If you have the stomach for it. I honestly think you’ll be rewarded with substantial dramas. If not, though, I totally understand. Get a sitter to watch over your own kids, grab a ticket to Delivery Man, Saving Mr. Banks or Anchorman, instead, and enjoy a lighter night at the movies.
MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB: