Young Love

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sign has been catching my eye on the subway lately. It’s an advertisement for a children’s clothing chain. Over a photograph of a small blond boy making a funny face, there’s a line of copy that goes something like this: “Timmy looks hot in a jacquard-print snowboard sweater, atop a button-down shirt in 100% cotton corduroy.” I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but the words “Timmy looks hot” are burned into my brain as if with a branding iron. Unless the sweater’s tendency to raise its wearer’s body temperature is being presented as a selling point, the phrase cannot help but imply that an erotically tinged evaluation is being made of Timmy’s, well, hotness.
    Besides the obvious marketing question it raises — How in hell did this ad ever make it past a focus group? — the phrase “Timmy looks hot” evokes the discomfort produced by any cultural manifestation of children’s sexuality. Two recent films featuring young boys as actors raise this discomfiting specter as well, in ways that run the gamut from prurient to prudish. Finding Neverland, directed by Marc Forster, tells the story of how the Scottish playwright and Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie (played by Johnny Depp) tapped into new depths as a writer after befriending a young widow and her four boys. Birth, starring Nicole Kidman, asks what would happen if a ten-year-old boy showed up at your door, claiming to be the reincarnation of your long-dead love. Both films, in my view, are failures, but the ways in which they fail provide a revealing glimpse into what happens when “Timmy” emerges as an object — or subject — of desire.
    In Finding Neverland, children are never really children — they’re blank screens onto which grownups may project their own anxieties about mortality, responsibility, and most of all, sex. The J.M. Barrie of the film is presented as an almost entirely sexless man, an eccentric, whimsical creature of the sort Depp specializes in and plays to the hilt. Barrie sleeps in a separate room from his cold, status-obsessed wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell). When he takes up with the widow Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies (Kate Winslet), there is nary a hint of impropriety involved; bonding over their shared spontaneity and love of children, the two never even approach each other for a kiss.
   So far, fair enough — by all accounts, the real-life Barrie was a timid, sexless man, and his friendship with the Llewellyn-Davies family (which broke up his marriage and made him the object of vicious gossip) was a chaste, if pathologically intimate, one (all four boys grew up to resent Barrie’s intrusion in their lives, and two would eventually commit suicide). The sentimental Finding Neverland skirts these unpleasant facts, but the film’s real weakness is its subscription to the Victorian idealization, not only of Barrie, but of childhood itself. There’s a big gray zone between loving children with high-minded, angelic purity and being an outright pedophile, but this is territory the movie chooses not to explore. When a friend warns Barrie that London tongues are wagging about the possible implications of his relationship with the four boys, Barrie reacts with a disapproving cluck — he’s shocked that anyone could even imagine anything so dreadful, and so, the film implies, should the viewer be. As for the boys’ desire, it never even comes into question: they are Miramax angels, interested only in playing pretend games, flying kites, and engaging in wholesome pillowfights under their self-appointed guardian’s enchanted gaze. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no NAMBLA enthusiast, but turning Barrie’s complex and ambiguous relationship to the Llewellyn-Davies boys into high tea with extra treacle does both adults and children (not to mention history) a disservice.
    Jonathan Glazer’s Birth is far more daring than Finding Neverland in its exploration of these matters; what it lacks is not courage but intelligence. The film’s basic premise — that an intelligent woman in her 30s would seriously consider ending her engagement to run away with a ten-year-old boy — is tantalizingly absurd. It could have made for a magnificently sexy and creepy film, especially with the high-powered acting talent at stake. But to carry off a story this provocative, the filmmaker must be capable of exploring childhood sexuality from the inside out. Instead, Birth seems fixated on the banal horror-movie secret at its center: is the boy, Sean (wonderfully played by Cameron Bright) really the reincarnation of Kidman’s late husband (who was also named Sean), or is he not?
    I would be incapable of providing spoilers on this point even if I wanted to, because frankly, the denouement of Birth made zero sense to me. But the more interesting question goes entirely unaddressed. Does Sean want Nicole Kidman’s character as a boy, or as a man? Did he wake up on his tenth birthday with a full-blown adult sexuality? How does a boy want someone, as opposed to a man? If Sean is not, in fact, the dead man, but merely an emotionally disturbed boy with the same name who has for some reason decided to play a cruel trick, what is the nature of his desire?
   The most talked-about moments in Birth have been the bathtub scene (in which Kidman’s character allows the boy to join her for a non-sexual soak) and the ice-cream scene (in which the two share a sundae as Kidman wonders aloud whether her young suitor will be able to “fulfill [her] needs”). But both these scenes are about Kidman’s desire — they play on our fear of whether she will cross the line and have sex with him, and our voyeuristic desire that she do exactly that. The boy’s motivations remain opaque; does he want her to cross the line, or does “the line” even exist for him at all? We come away from Birth with an exquisitely detailed portrait of what it would be like to have a ten-year-old boy in love with you, but no sense at all of what it would be like to be a ten-year-old boy in love.  

  ©2004 Dana Stevens and Nerve.com.