Undefended: Scenes from Childhood

It is the middle of summer, the season where thoughts incline towards youth. For many, school is just around the corner again and nostalgia is setting in. This month, FilmFisher’s writers picked the five times cinema best captured the experience of childhood. Chime in with your own picks in the comments section.

only yesterday

Timothy Lawrence

  1. Only Yesterday (1991) – Taeko and her crush meet on the road. For his protagonist’s childhood memories, director Isao Takahata leaves much of the canvas a blank white, rendering adolescence vivid yet hazy and irrevocably distant (or so it seems).
  2. Unbreakable (2000) – David Dunn slides the newspaper across the table to his son. Every little boy wants to believe his dad is a superhero. This moment crushes me every time.
  3. Where the Wild Things Are (2009) – “Did you know the sun was gonna die?” Unlikely as it sounds, James Gandolfini turns out to be the Platonic ideal of an imaginary friend.
  4. Toy Story 3 (2010) – The first 10 minutes mark a decisive shift in the series. Before our eyes, a love letter to childhood (the joyous, no-holds-barred adventures of Andy’s imagination) becomes a farewell to childhood. “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” has never been so bittersweet.
  5. The Tree of Life (2011) – The Respighi-scored montage captures the breathless wonder of childhood, that time when the transcendent seems so unutterably, ineffably close, so perfectly. “That’s where God lives.”

Jackson De Vight

  1. The first few minutes of Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) – Perhaps this is more about youth than childhood (as of the release of Revenge of the Sith, Luke and Leia were 19), but both the idea of Luke on the tail end of his stay at his childhood home itching to be free and Leia acting bravely under the pressures she’s been exposed to show us much of what two vastly different childhoods can make of our youth.
  2. Opening montage of Up (2009) – While the full love story of Carl and Ellie goes far beyond childhood itself, I think it was the first look I got at how my childhood situated in a full, robust life of joys and sorrows. (Also, while I find the rest of the film generally mediocre, the throughline of Russell’s relationship with his father and Carl is so compelling I think it really deserved its own film and was a real first for many kids growing up without father figures.)
  3. Peter returning to an aging Wendy in Peter Pan (2003) – Peter Pan, the real Peter Pan expressed in Barrie’s original story, provides a bittersweet idea of childhood as a profound, beautiful, unique phase of life which must needs expire to reach its fullness in the rest of life.
  4. Chihiro is uncomfortable at the site of her parents’ transformation in Spirited Away (2001) – I generally loath storylines in which children disrespect or subvert their parents or elders, especially when they are magically vindicated, because I don’t think the truisms about the wisdom of children extends to situational awareness. That said, this scene highlights something which feels very true – that at times children may recognize the malaise around a situation far more readily than adults overly concerned by their material surroundings.
  5. Simba mourns a fallen Mufasa in The Lion King (1994) – This moment, seconds before Scar arrives to poison the truths of this situation, is packed with meaning. For me, it was an early introduction to the emotions of death and loss, as well as a compelling prelude to one avenue (escapism) for how those forced to grow up too soon face those forces.

8-Binary sunset

Remy Wilkins

  1. Shigeru playing in water (Nobody Knows, 2004) – You could pluck out almost any scene from Hirokazu Koreeda’s films and find some beautiful/heart-wrenching scene of childhood, but the water fight in Nobody Knows is my favorite. Warning: as beautiful as this film is, it will ultimately rip your heart out.
  2. Toni’s dance rehearsal (The Fits, 2016) – Toni trying to shift from the boxing world of her older brothers to the feminine (yet still brutal) world of dancers. Few movies depict the intensity of fitting into a new crowd as well as this little known film.
  3. Lady Bird (2017) fighting with her mom while they pick out a new dress. Bickering the entire film, showing how easily they fall into it, but just as easily showing they can drop all animosity.
  4. Hushpuppy running with fireworks (Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012) – Moments of celebration will be remembered forever.
  5. Wall•E (2008) messing with M-O when he first arrives on the Axiom. Devious like a child, but also as delightful.

Robert Brown

  1. The girls explore the house and countryside in My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Houses in particular are magical things to a child.
  2. I can’t think of a film that better captures the transition from childhood to adolescence than Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).
  3. Harry meets Ron and Hermione on the Hogwarts Express in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001). Lifelong friendships begin in wonderfully mundane ways.
  4. The snowball fight and the epic dirt-clod fight it foreshadows in Where the Wild Things Are (2009). Nine times out of ten, the most audacious playtime ideas end with someone (often the instigator) in tears.
  5. The LEGO Movie (2014) really does feel like it’s being improvised by a child playing in his room.

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Tom Upjohn

  1. 500 Days of Summer (2009) – The opening montage, where home videos of Tom and Summer show the beauty, awkwardness, and innocence of youth.
  2. The Florida Project (2017) – The kids repeatedly running through the gruff motel manager’s office and interrupting business with their troublemaking, but somehow still making him smile.
  3. The Bicycle Thief (1948) – Bruno getting dressed for work with his father, in the same uniform, despite him being only 5 or 10 years old.
Timothy Lawrence

A graduate of the Torrey Honors Institute at BIOLA University, Timothy Lawrence teaches great books through Torrey Academy in Southern California. He writes essays and fiction and counts the Coen Brothers and George Lucas among his personal heroes.

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