Seeing movies, writing about movies, talking about movies (and this time of year, coming home every day to a mailbox full of movies) — this is a pretty good job. Other than enduring the occasional screening where everyone in the theater is constantly on their cell phone, there are very few downsides. In fact there’s really just one downside that comes to mind, one least favorite part of the gig:
Reviewing the work of child actors.
As it is awards season, I’m currently trying to catch up with as many 2012 movies as I can before it’s time to file my top ten list. Now that I’m a member of the Online Film Critics Society, I’m receiving a fair number of screeners. It’s great. Yesterday, I watched one of those screeners — a movie from this year I was greatly looking forward to, by a director I like and respect — and was absolutely horrified by the performances by two child actors whose relationship was supposed to anchor the piece. The film had other problems, but the quality of the acting by its youngest stars was by far the biggest and most troublesome.
I’m relieved I don’t have to review this movie, because then I’d have to figure out a way to fairly assess their performances. It wouldn’t be easy. Some of my colleagues disagree; I’ve spoken with peers who consider child actors the equals of everyone else on a movie set. They’re just as much professionals, one once told me, as the director and the key grip and the boom mic operator, and therefore must be held to the same standard of excellence. On a technical level, that’s probably true. Child actors get paid for their work like everyone else. If they stink, viewers don’t let them off the hook just because they’re young. Bad is bad.
But reviewing the work of bad child actors always makes me uneasy. Sure, they might have fought for the role — but they also might have a pushy stage mom or dad who forced them into a career they don’t want. Sure, they might be mature enough to handle some constructive criticism — but were you at the age of 10? I’m still recovering from the psychological trauma inflicted by kids in my neighborhood when they bashed my 6th grade school play rendition of “Swanee” by changing the song’s lyrics to “Matty” and sarcastically singing it on the school bus. Even successful child actors turn into horrifically warped, screwed-up adults. I’d rather not be party to a teenager’s descent into madness.
So how should a critic review a child actor’s work? In my mind, the answer is “honestly but delicately.” Certainly if a child actor delivers an outstanding performance, they deserve praise — like the kind I gave Quvenzhane Wallis last summer for her incredible work in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (if you were wondering if that was the anonymous film I was referring to earlier, the answer is obviously no). If an underage thespian’s work isn’t up to snuff, then it’s not inappropriate to say so — with a certain amount of tact. The goal here is to be a critic, not a bully.