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Like a Child.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JULY 6, 1998:  It's amazing how completely most adults forget what it's like to be a child. We forget how much children know and how little they understand—and how important the smallest things are when you're small yourself. It's one reason kids have a hard time believing grown-ups were ever young.

A couple of new video releases take on the tough job of seeing through children's eyes and do it successfully. The Quiet Room (1996, PG) is an Australian film about a 7-year-old girl who stops talking as a protest against her parents' continual fighting. She's played by a striking young actress named Chloe Ferguson, who narrates almost the entire film by way of the girl's interior monologues. There's a fairy tale quality to the movie's construction—the characters are just named "Girl," "Mother," and "Father," and the pastel paints of the girl's bedroom lend an unreal feel—but not to its plot. Writer/director Rolf de Heer isn't interested in easy resolutions but in how children make sense of the perplexing and often disappointing real world. The parents aren't drawn nearly as well or as sympathetically as the girl, but that's a minor weakness in an engrossing film.

The French film Ponette (1996, NR) is a good companion piece to The Quiet Room. Its heroine is only 4, and how director Jacques Doillon got such a full, unvarnished performance from his star, Victoire Thivisol, is unimaginable. But he did, and his study of a little girl coping with her mother's sudden death is wrenching and poignant. The dialogue between Ponette and her playmates—about death and God and nature—is fascinating and perfectly observed. The film's only flaw is an inexplicable fantasy ending that disrupts the movie's studied realism. Up to that point, though, Doillon makes you remember what it is to be very young, very vulnerable, and very confused.

In its best moments, Ponette recalls the French classic Forbidden Games (1952), Réné Clement's devastating portrait of children during wartime. In the brutal opening sequence, a girl is orphaned during a German strafing of refugees on a French highway. She's taken in by local farmers and befriends their young son. Together, they begin to "play" at war and death, constructing graveyards of crosses stolen from churchgrounds. The games bring predictable outrage from local adults, who don't understand that their children are merely reflecting the world they've been given. I first saw this film when I was young myself—maybe 9 or 10—and, unlike a lot of other things from that time, I've never forgotten it.


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