“Beasts of No Nation” (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2015)
In “Beasts of No Nation,” the transition from childhood to adulthood happens in an instant. Agu, who we first meet as an imaginative youngster, is kidnapped and caught in the middle of a brutal civil war. Before the film even hits its halfway point, his innocence is fully transformed by the atrocities he’s seen and committed as the right-hand man to the Commandant (Idris Elba) and his band of guerrilla fighters. Agu has to become fearless and ruthless — or perhaps just numb — to survive in the world he’s been thrown into. By the end of the film, Agu has psychological scars that are beyond repair. When he talks to a counselor who tries to get inside the boy’s head and coax him into talking about his trauma, it becomes clear that after the things he’s witnessed, Agu no longer sees the world through a child’s eyes.
“Blue Caprice” (Alexandre Moors, 2013)
The 2002 Beltway sniper attacks inspired fear across the nation as 17 people were murdered and 10 were injured. Alexandre Moors’ harrowing drama presents the events from the point of view of the two snipers, John Allen Muhammad and his 17-year-old protege Lee Boyd Malvo, and the director paints a disorienting father-son relationship that is searing and seductive. Malvo first met Muhammad while living in Antigua, and the film tracks the genesis and development of their relationship as Muhammed subversively trains Malvo into becoming his willing co-assassin. As played by newcomer Tequan Richmond, Malvo is quiet and vulnerably manipulated, showing just how dangerous the impressionable psychology of children can be.
“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (John Boyne, 2008)
Though the film is told largely from the perspective of a child, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” packs nearly as much melodramatic punch as any film more adult-oriented. Spinning the tale of an innocent childhood friendship between Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the son of a concentration camp commandant, and Schmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish prisoner, the film provides a disturbing portrait of the life of captivity during the Holocaust. Refusing to shy away from the horrors of war, the daily realities of death and illness begin to creep into Bruno’s largely protected life as the boys’ friendship grows. But when Bruno agrees to help Schmuel find his missing father, the film’s unrelenting dedication to the harsh realities of the camps bubbles over into a sickening portrait of the tragic loss of life and culture enacted by the Nazi regime. Certainly not for the faint of heart, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” provides an important and accessible depiction of one of the world’s greatest tragedies.
“Empire of the Sun” (Steven Spielberg, 1987)
In this often-overlooked Spielberg flick, Christian Bale makes his debut into the film world as a wealthy English boy separated from his parents and imprisoned in an internment camp in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II. At only 13 years old, Bale manages to give a stellar, emotionally resonant performance. Bale not only displays the childlike wonder so typical of Spielberg’s films, but he also expresses the wrenching loss of innocence engendered by growing up in the harshest of environments. “Empire of the Sun” allows the viewer access to a bleak world of captivity through the eyes of a young dreamer, whose obsession with planes is colored and corrupted by the war which surrounds him. Adapted from J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical book of the same name, Spielberg dials it back somewhat, letting the film’s engrossing scenery and deeply felt performances stand on their own.
“Nell” (Michael Apted, 1994)
Jodie Foster earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her challenging and transformative turn as Nell in Michael Apted’s drama about the post-captivity healing process. The titular young woman has lived her entire life in an isolated cabin in the woods alongside her mother, and she’s developed imaginative and feral characteristics that make her transition into the real world a psychologically complex journey. The drama begins with the discovery of Nell after her mother’s death, and much of the runtime is devoted to how two doctors try and figure out her behavioral traits and attempt to have her assimilate into society. In the hands of Foster, Nell’s coming of age is an increasingly chaotic and startling experience, and she makes every small success a triumph of the human spirit.
“Partisan” (Ariel Kleiman, 2015)
With an ambiguous sense of time and place, writer-director Ariel Kleiman’s is a mysterious drama about Leo (Alex Balaganskiy), a young boy living in a cult under the paternal eye of Gregori, played by the always intimidating Vincent Cassel. While Leo’s coming of age results in a stark reality check about his living situation, the film is not so much about challenging the patriarchy as it is a slow realization that one’s way of life is not in accordance with one’s own belief system. Coming into his own personhood, Leo beings to internally question Gregori’s society and his purpose within it, and though he doesn’t necessarily act out, Leo’s understanding of his situation allows Kleiman to create an assured psychological drama with a subversive intensity. The drama won Best Cinematography in the World Cinema section at Sundance.
“Room” (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
For 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the small shed in which he and his mother have been held captive in is the entire world. Though he has access to TV, he imagines the world that he sees to be entirely fictionalized, existing only on the screen. But when Ma (Brie Larson) hatches a plan to free him from Room, Jack’s life is turned upside down with the groundbreaking discovery that much of TV world is real after all: Filled with bright lights, new germs, and, to his utmost enthusiasm, real dogs. “Room” is an often heart-wrenching examination of the impacts of abuse and captivity, as we see Jack and Ma attempt to adjust to a world that they do not understand. For a film that premiered just a little over a month ago, “Room” has inspired an incredible groundswell of critical lauding, but for all of Brie Larson’s well-deserved accolades, Tremblay is just as startling. His affects of bright-eyed wonder, sheer terror and human growth are as genuine as they are disarming. Just try to watch Tremblay meet a scruffy terrier named Seamus and stay dry-eyed.
“The Wolfpack” (Crystal Moselle, 2015)
This Sundance-winning documentary brings viewers inside a Lower East Side apartment that for six young boys and their sister represents the entire world. Because of their father’s counter-cultural worldview and strong distrust of society, the family is kept locked away, and “The Wolfpack” powerfully examines what extreme isolation does to a developing mind. The boys all have glaring gaps in their social development, having almost never spoken to anyone outside their own little clan, but they all display an amazing creativity that they use to stay occupied and stay sane. The boys obsessively watch and reenact movies, using this form of art-making to take on different personas outside their own and explore the outside world they’re forbidden from being a part of. According to one of the boys, “It makes me feel like I’m living. Sort of.” The movie will make you feel exactly that way, too.