Boys on film: Paula Coston investigates
Back in 2001 the New York Times, reviewing the film L.I.E. and explaining that its central character was a troubled suburban teenage boy remarked wryly, ‘Do the movies recognize any other kind?’
I know what they mean. Film scenarios with boys as the main protagonist, or maybe paired in the limelight with one other, can seem rigidly distinctive. (I’m thinking here of movies that originate as movies, as opposed to book adaptations.)
Looking back over the last few decades, the youths are often hard-done-by, or from ‘difficult’ backgrounds. About A Boy (2002) features a youngster living with a lonely ‘misfit’ single mother. Most of the gang in Stand By Me (1986) have problems at home; Billy Elliot (2000) struggles to discover himself against the backdrop of the Miners’ Strike and his disintegrating family; bullies chase Bastian of The Never Ending Story into his adventures; the youngster in Second Best (1994) comes from an orphanage, and yearns for his father; there’s a messy divorce at home and an absent father in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982); The Chorus (2001) is set around a whole schoolful of troubled and abandoned boys; in Sling Blade (1996), the adult Karl’s boyhood history of being taunted by other boys and witnessing a man raping his mother is crucial to the plotline; not only the fact that the boy in The Man Without a Face (1993) is in conflict with his family, but that the title character himself incinerated a boy in the car accident that disfigured him, is significant; Chris, the volatile teenager in Undertow (2005), has a little brother with a strange eating disorder and an older brother in prison; the boy in The Jumper (2011) lives a claustrophobic life; the shy youngster of The Boy and the Chess Player (2012) is being raised in a disturbingly anti-Semitic family; the hero of Across Grace Alley (2013) is trying to come to terms with his parents’ divorce; and in L.I.E., the fifteen-year-old Howie loses almost everyone and everything in about a week near the beginning of the movie. I could go on….
Such dark background colorations could be argued to be essential to win the viewers’ sympathies for these male figures – but the interesting thing is, I’m not sure that so many such scenarios predominate in movies showcasing young girls.
Certain other tropes seem to stick to boys in movies.
For one, the hero is often thrown out of, or chooses to leave, his ‘normal’ environment. Stand by Me: the gang leaves home and sleeps out overnight for the first time. Empire of the Sun (1987): the Japanese occupation of Shanghai tears an English boy from his parents and barrels him into a different world. In Pelle the Conqueror (1988), father and son emigrate from Sweden to a Danish island. The Cure: two boys float down the Mississipi on a quest. In D.A.R.Y.L. (1985), a strange boy seems lost from his ‘normal’ world, in fact turns out to be a cyborg. The lost E.T. yearning to ‘Phone home’ could be taken as a lighthearted embodiment of Elliott’s own alienation from his family. Alec Ramsey of The Black Stallion (1979) is travelling to England on a steamship. Undertow: Chris’s father takes him from the home he knows to the backwoods of Georgia. In Mean Creek (2004), the boys embark on a dangerous boating expedition; and in The Good Son (1993), Mark goes away to stay with his cousins following the death of his mother. And Bastian of The Never Ending Story, like his counterpart in The Jumper (2011), escapes into another life of fantasy and magic. The roots of some of these scenarios seem to twine back, deep and powerful, to the influence of certain classic, boy-orientated texts: Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, as well as all those adventure stories of the 1940s, 50s and 60s where boys (and girls) stay away from home for reasons of family bereavement or sickness….
…because another common trope in ‘boy films’ is violence, brutality and mortality: guns, accidents, fires, drownings, deaths and dying. Witness Stand by Me, Empire of the Sun, The Cure, The Black Stallion, Sling Blade, The Chorus, Mean Creek, The Good Son…. In several notable movies, World War II looms large; in many, the central youngsters choose, or are forced to, or accidentally, participate in violence themselves. Encounters with these harsh physical realities are often the boys’ rites of passage towards maturity and adulthood. As a woman, this realisation makes me uncomfortable. Is this altogether healthy for the young viewing male? Need the violence trope be such a recurrent shorthand in filmland for the young male’s self-development?
Another pervasive formula is pairing: either of two youths, or of a boy with a man. Often in such instances, the biological father or stepfather is absent; commonly in the substitute male-male relationship there is a strong element of mentoring, with the learning explicit and/or inferred. There’s About a Boy, obviously, where Hugh Grant’s ‘shallow’ Will Freeman reluctantly takes Marcus under his wing – in the end, ‘growing up’ somewhat himself too. The man ‘without a face’ actually tutors Chuck, who is determined to go to military school despite family resistance; but the boy and his teacher also end up learning from each other. One of the teacher-pupil relationships in The Chorus turns into an adoption – of the abandoned little Pépinot. The mysterious old chess player in The Boy and the Chess Player teaches his young opponent ‘a great lesson’, but it isn’t about chess. J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland (2004) befriends the troubled Llewelyn boy (that adjective again) who’ll become his fictional Peter Pan. Second Best tells the story of the lonely middle-aged Graham trying to forge an adoptive relationship with a boy who still hankers after his lost father.
Boy-boy relationships are also everywhere. In the adolescent, anti-Semitic atmosphere of a Catholic boarding school, the Jewish boy being hidden from the Nazis by priests in Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) teaches his French schoolfriend some inescapable and harrowing life truths. Michele’s encounter with the older Filippo, a kidnap victim, in I’m Not Scared (2003) brings him to a reluctant, frightened maturity. The Cure narrates the journey of two boys, one eleven, one fifteen with AIDS, who believe in ‘the magic of the world’, towards a tragic ending; but on the way, they enrich each other’s lives and teach each other crucial life lessons. In The Black Stallion, the young Alec forms a relationship with a male, and on their adventures they support and protect each other – although in this case, the ‘mentor’/friend is a horse. The horse companion is a more common trope in girl literature and film – as is the pairing with a female teacher in the boy film Billy Elliot.
Tellingly, rarer are films that investigate the subject of young boys’ sexuality: sexuality too seems female territory, on the whole. The Danish You Are Not Alone (1981) follows two boys, fifteen and nine, as they explore theirs together in a potent atmosphere of masturbation and sexual fantasy at a boys’ boarding school; but in the way the subject is treated, Kim, the younger of the two, comes over uneasily, visually, as something of a sex object. L.I.E. is a fascinating, subtle and disturbing treatment of the relationship between Gary, an adult pederast who is at once sinister, and affectionate and supportive, and the fifteen-year-old Howie. Another intriguing (short) movie is Across Grace Alley (2013), in which a sad boy seeks comfort in his infatuation with a woman he can see through a neighbouring window.
How does this exploration make me feel about boys in the movies? I think, sad that there aren’t more domestic dramas featuring boys – which would allow for an exploration of their developing feelings and the unfolding of their emotional intelligence; and disappointed, too, that more don’t tackle pre-pubescent boys’ positive relationships with women and young girls. (Why, apart from Billy Elliot, can I find so few where the woman/older girl is guide and mentor? Can’t women be role models for boys?)
I wonder, is the film industry guilty of stereotyping boys through its recourse to a few ‘obvious’ boy tropes, or is it that we – boys and men included – are guilty of accepting, even expecting, these limiting scenarios? Probably both. In which case all this art will only reinforce life.