Childstar directed by Don McKellar, written by McKellar and Michael Goldbach, produced by Niv Fichman, Daniel Iron and Jennifer Jonas, with McKellar, Mark Rendall, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dave Foley, Kristin Adams and Alan Thicke. 98 minutes. A TVA Films release. Opens Friday (January 28). Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Sometimes it's hard for us depreciated un-famous to really sympathize when it comes to the agonized lives of our celebrities.
But even the most cynical among us have a soft spot for the suffering of those precious little tikes, the famous children. By now we know the toll that fame takes on our kiddie stars.
Biopics endlessly repeat the travails of Judy Garland (the tragic prototype), Anissa Jones (dead of a drug overdose at 18, she never recovered from her stint on 60s sitcom Family Affair) and Corey Haim (our own Canadian child star, who made it big in 87's The Lost Boys but has been dogged by bankruptcy, substance abuse and straight-to-video ever since).
Prepubescent beauties introduced to pills and booze, burnout and rehab sue their parents and eventually emerge either more famous than ever, begging for a role on Big Brother VII or dead.
Years of horrified headlines telling this story haven't altered our hunger for eight-year-old actors. So why should we expect Don McKellar's new movie, Childstar, to change any minds? If anything, films delving into the grotesque side of celebrity, from Almost Famous to Gia to Stardom, simply add to the allure by dramatizing the fact that there's a 50-50 chance today's It Girl will be tomorrow's felon or Jesus freak.
In Childstar, McKellar tries just about everything to find a fresh way to portray the evils of the entertainment industry. While his melding of sober drama, farce, satire and earnest appeals for the sanctity of art makes for an energetic and engrossing film, it's hard to shake the feeling that we've been here before. Ultimately, we leave the theatre no closer to understanding what goes on in the mind of a 10-year-old with millions of Hollywood dineros who depends on his dimples.
Why does a deeper truth about the nature of celebrity so often elude filmmakers? One answer might come from the fact that even a film critiquing celebrity usually stars celebrities. Childstar would never have been made without Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Thicke or even McKellar himself. As soon as the actors appear on the big screen, they turn themselves (and us) into willing participants in "the industry." A potentially poignant critique is undermined by the very fact that those doing the critiquing are themselves celebrities wanting our attention.
In William Kotzwinkle's novel The Bear Went Over The Mountain, a bear finds a manuscript under a tree. He parlays the book into a career as a hit author, complete with movie deals and all the honey he can lick. The bear answers talk-show hosts with ponderous non sequiturs: "Jam. Sweeeeet." Hosts nod, fascinated. Only the reader and the bear know the truth: he's a bear.
By replacing the actor with an animal, Kotzwinkle neatly eliminates the problem of celebrities getting up on the soapbox and telling us what's wrong with celebrity. The bear can get deeper into the nature of fame, why it's so alluring, why it eats its children and spits them out half-chewed. The bear shows us celebrity as perpetual fakery, as a manufactured, anti-human quality that could just as easily be conferred on a can of beans.
Kotzwinkle's bear, terrified of being exposed, suggests how celebrities, especially child stars, learn to pretend so well that they become addicted to their public identity. Lost and lonely, the little famous ones must perpetually convince themselves (and us) of their deserved celebrity.
Humanity fades under the bright lights, but our baby stars still shine - so long as the honey keeps coming. Childstar (Don McKellar) Rating: NNN
Childstar is at once earnest and ironic, a drama posing as a satire pretending to be a farce. This partially redeems a film that has an otherwise familiar story: spoiled 12-year-old star Taylor Brandon Burns's sense of entitlement threatens to corrupt everyone around him.
Nebbishy Rick, played by Don McKellar, is an indie filmmaker/ limo driver. Hired to drive Taylor around, he sees the good in the boy when everyone else just sees dollars.
Strong characters pull the movie along. McKellar and Jennifer Jason Leigh both convey a weirdly jaded optimism. Allan Thicke appears alongside Taylor in the sitcom Family Differences.
Snippets of the sitcom and Taylor's feature-film-in-the-making, a ridiculously plausible movie called The First Son, about his saving the president and country from terrorists, infuse Childstar with frantic energy. But as the plot morphs into a funny, disdainful assault on the entertainment industry, the divide between Taylor and Rick widens and the narrative teeters on the verge of clichéd.