Childhood in Cinema: 10 Unforgettable Films

I. Ivan’s Childhood [1962]

Country: USSR

Andrei Tarkovsky‘s film is a a beautiful, powerful story set during the World War II. At its centre is a twelve-year old boy Ivan (Kolya Burlyayev) who has taken on the job of an adult, the dangerous job of spying on the Nazi forces that are invading his country. Tarkovsky was able to convey his own particular poetic vision of one fragile childhood that meets the horrors of war. Ivan’s tasks for the Red Army intermingle with his dreams of happiness as Tarkovsky shows the sheer impact of war barbarities on a young mind. This movie is both moving and unforgettable, and remains the best cinematic debut I have ever seen.

II. The Spirit of the Beehive [1973]

Country: Spain

The Spirit of the Beehive or El espíritu de la colmena comes from Spanish director Víctor Erice and stars young Ana Torrent in the lead role, giving the most exceptional performance. As so many other films on this list, this beautifully-filmed story portrays children coming to terms with the darker side of life. The story centres on two small girls in a Castilian village in 1940 during the Franco regime. Their fascination with Frankenstein leads to their imaginary world colliding with the harsh realities around them, especially when Ana encounters an escaped prisoner. Atmospheric and rich in symbolism, The Spirit of the Beehive is rightly considered to be one of the foremost cinematic achievements from Spain.

III. Capernaum [2018]

Country: Lebanon

After her impressive films Caramel [2007] and Where Do We Go Now? [2011], both of which I recommend, Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki made this film set in Lebanon and centering on a small boy, Zain (Zain al-Rafeea), who sues his parents for neglect. Labaki is first a great visual story-teller and the journey of Zain through his struggles is a difficult, but also an entrancing watch. There are many social issues packed in this film, but the story never feels overbearing or pedantic, finds its quiet moments and its inexperienced actors shine.

IV. The Florida Project [2017]

Country: US

In this American film, Young Brooklynn Prince plays a mischievous little girl Moonee who lives in a “dream” place – just next to a Disney resort in Florida. Sean Baker’s documentary-like filming captures Moonee’s day-to-day activities with her friends. The child’s imagination and wonder are contrasted with a more troublesome economic and social situation around her, especially that involving Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). This film, which also stars Willem Dafoe in the role of a hotel manager, captures vividly the innocent joys of childhood and was unjustly ignored in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards 2018.

V. Forbidden Games [1952]

Country: France

France has has its share of great films involving children, including Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, les Enfants [1987] and Christophe Barratier’s The Chorus [2004]. René Clément’s classic film Jeux interdits is about Paulette, an orphaned girl from Paris, who is taken in by the family of a peasant boy Michel when her family is killed through a Nazi airstrike. Paulette is set to burying her dog also killed as a result of the airstrike chaos and Michel is willing to help. Touching friendship develops amidst all the war and privation. This film was once unjustly ignored or side-lined by both the French critics and numerous festivals, but it is now gaining its deserved recognition. It is also included in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.

VI. Kes [1969]

Country: UK

In this social realist film by Ken Loach, British director behind I, Daniel Blake [2016] and Sorry We’ve Missed You [2019], the shameful British class system, the injustices that flow from it, and the faults of the then educational system, are on full display. Similar to François Truffaut’s debut below, Kes is a vivid character study and is based on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. It tells of one troubled boy (David Bradley) who does not seem to fit in anywhere. Bullied and ostracised, he makes a special connection with a falcon that he wants to train.

VII. Summer 1993 [2017]

Country: Spain

In this film by Carla Simon, Frida (Laia Artigas) is a six-year old girl who appears to have lost one of her parents to AIDS. Frida’s mother is dead and the girl is sent live with to her uncle and aunt who also have a young daughter Anna. In this story, childhood proves no match for the harsh realities of the adult world, including the trauma of losing a parent. This is a story about the simplicities of childhood, overcoming emotional pain, adaptation, and about the struggles of starting a new life.

VIII. The Kid with a Bike [2011]

Country: Belgium/France

This film from Dardenne brothers is about a boy’s journey to re-connect with his estranged father. Thomas Doret plays an eleven-year old Cyril who befriends a local hairdresser Samantha (Cécile De France), seeking parental guidance and emotional connection. Cyril’s bike becomes a key point of connection between the two. The Kid with a Bike is a touching film from the Belgian duo known for their beautiful, deceptively simple cinematography, realism and such films as Rosetta [1999], The Child [2005] and Two Days, One Night [2014].

IX. Nobody Knows [2004]

Country: Japan

Hirokazu Kore-eda has already made a name for himself as an extremely talented film director that focuses on films about (dysfunctional or fallen-on-hard-times) families with small children. His Palme d’Or-winning film Shoplifters [2018] concern a family of shoplifters “adopting” a little girl who has been neglected by her own family. In turn, Nobody Knows is loosely based on a real story – the shocking Sugamo child abandonment case of 1988 that happened in Tokyo, Japan when a mother abandoned her five underage children to their fate leaving the oldest child in charge and only a small amount of cash. Kore-eda (The Third Murder (2018)) seems to know instinctively when to let the camera do its job without intervention and when to step in to show a particular viewpoint of a child. Nobody Knows is a compelling exploration of childhood that strives to survive on the fringes of society.

X. The 400 Blows [1959]

Country: France

Last but not least on my list is François Truffaut’s debut film The 400 Blows. The setting is Paris, 1950s. A boy, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is a troublemaker, who cannot seem to find his place in society. Truffaut lets the audience connect with Antoine through his small, private gestures, including those related to Balzac, showing a youth struggling with society and its expectations. This very personal film for the director has some important social commentary and in its time set a new standard for French cinema.

Do you have a favourite “childhood” film or tell me which films with child actors do you prefer?

15 thoughts on “Childhood in Cinema: 10 Unforgettable Films

  1. This is a very intriguing list. I’ve only seen Capernaum, The Florida Project and The 400 Blows, all of which I enjoyed, but now I think I’ll be adding a few more to my watch list.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve only seen The Florida Project and The 400 Blows. Of course The 400 Blows is absolutely classic and absolutely worthy of that distinction. What a work of art! And I loved The Florida Project. It’s one of those–like The 400 Blows–that sticks with you. It affected me. (I believe Tangerine is by the same director. Either way, if you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth a watch.)
    The Spirit of the Beehive sounds very intriguing. I’m going to search for that one.
    For me it’s the obvious old faithful, To Kill a Mockingbird. I also liked The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a lot. And then, there is my favorite, Night of the Hunter. How I love that movie! Undertow is another movie in the vein of Night of the Hunter that I find quite beautiful in that southern gothic kind of way.

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    1. I vaguely remembering seeing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but perhaps it was the trailer only for me? It was quite a bit of time ago so I need to check it out again, thanks! And The Night of the Hunter is great, I agree! I read the book too and enjoyed it immensely! I didn’t know about Undertow at all, thanks for this recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a brilliant list, the only one I know is The Florida Project, lots to look into thanks. And I didn’t know about Roger Ebert’s Great Movie list so thanks for that too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by! All are definitely worth seeing! Hopefully I’ll be exploring more films by Koreeda this summer and recently also have finally bought a blu-ray of Forbidden Games. I can’t wait to re-watch it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good to see some Capernaum love. It made my top 10 of 2019. Nice to see Kes and Nobody Knows in there too. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Iranian films Children of Heaven or Where Is the Friend’s Home? but they are cracking watches too!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The Florida Project IS a modern masterpiece! What a great movie! Bria Vinaite’s almost-too-real performance deserved an Oscar. Kes was impressive but it was hard to watch — I just can’t see animals getting hurt.

    Liked by 1 person

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