Maybe it's just a backlash to the impending end-of-days predicted by the Mayan calendar. But 2012's onslaught of apocalyptic cinema is about to find its natural antidote in a batch of movies that look to the future by focusing on children. The next few weeks will bring two brilliant new films, New Orleanian Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild and Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (watch this space for full reviews), that not only feature kids as protagonists but find depth and clarity in the various ways children view the world.
Two foreign films opening this weekend at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, France's Polisse and Japan's I Wish, herald the trend with stories that put kids front and center and remind us there's life for summer movies beyond the aliens and superheroes normally found at the multiplex.
"Polisse" is not French for "police," but rather the screenwriters' idea of how a child might misspell the word. The kids depicted in this character study about cops working in the Child Protection Unit (CPU) in Paris have been placed in harm's way, mostly by abusive parents or relatives. The details vary widely, but the dangers are always real. According to director, co-writer and star Maiwenn, Polisse was initially inspired by a documentary on the Paris CPU. Maiwenn strengthens the connection to true events by playing a photographer imbedded in a CPU unit, which neatly reflects her own real-life research "internship" as a filmmaker working within the CPU in Paris.
That hall of mirrors results in a film that plays like a cross between a documentary and a scripted work of fiction. The brisk pace and multiple overlapping cases are drawn from the lives of CPU officers, who quickly jump from one case to another in hopes of avoiding emotional involvement with the children. Their full-time devotion to the work leads to personal entanglements and heated confrontations within the unit. Maiwenn captures it all in gritty style, painting a stark portrait of French society seldom seen by international audiences.
I Wish provides a window into the more innocent world of two pre-teen brothers in modern suburban Japan who are physically separated when their parents split up. The two halves of the family live in cities connected by a new bullet train. One brother comes to believe anyone who witnesses the exact moment when the north- and south-bound trains first pass each other will be granted a wish — in his case, for the family to be reunited. A junior-size road movie ensues as the brothers and their friends scheme to meet at the crossing point and bring the family back together.
The film is probably longer than it should be. But I Wish director Hirokazu Koreeda, who's known for this ability to get naturalistic performances from pint-size actors, needs the time to remind us how kids actually think, communicate and perceive adults. Clear-eyed and unsentimental, I Wish finds its voice in quiet moments that reveal simple truths. Summer movies may never be the same. — KEN KORMAN