We watched Babel, Sherrybaby and Half Nelson, all 2006 movies that received oodles of accolades, back-to-back last week. Half Nelson (Ryan Gosling plays an addict) and Sherrybaby (Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an addict) share obvious similarities, but Babel also fits into the theme of troubled adults and their relationships with children. Children are often idealized in storytelling - they're bland or cute stand-in's for purity, innocence, salvation, wilderness, the future, hope (Little Miss Sunshine) so I was interested to analyze how well developed the child characters were and what purpose they served in each of the above films.
Ryan Gosling (swoon) is fascinating to watch as Dan, a charming and immature middle school history teacher on crack. As extreme as the plot sounds, the story was subtle and unsensational, and the actors were magnetic. It doesn't follow the standard redemption myth - nothing is idealized or villainized, we don't know if this guy will ever recover, we don't understand why he's an addict - he has self respect, passion for social justice and really connects with kids. He has periods where he isn't using and he's got it together. So we're devastated each time he relapses, over and over again. Dan is self centered and charismatic - as popular teachers generally are (cult of personality) - and his complicated friendship with his lonely student Drey, who ends up selling him drugs - is the crux of the film. Drey isn't a wise child, she isn't cute or innocent, bucking the stereotype.
Half Nelson works well as a Jungian coming of age story. Dan's mask is crumbling, he's steeped in his shadow, then he recognizes his anima (Drey) who represents the feminine aspects of his persona, she's forgiving, she accepts him even though he's a wreck. She is his soul image, his guide out of his shadow unconscious. The film is satisfying because he has made progress toward individuation, integrating aspects of self.
Maggie Gyllenhaal was excellent as another self centered (but not charismatic) addict. Sexually abused as a child, Sherry is completely unconscious, immature, sexually inappropriate, and competes for attention with her 6 year old daughter. We see her grow and recognize that she needs help, but the tone is rotten and seedy thoughout the whole film. She lacks self respect. Children save her several times. Getting a job as a preschool assistant keeps her out of prison. Her desire to be a mother to her daughter also keeps her from making some really bad decisions. The children in Sherrybaby symbolize purity; they serve as mirrors, reminding Sherry she is still a child. The film ends with Sherry acknowlegding that she can't do it alone, but she hasn't met her animus. She's still swimming in her unconcious and far from individuation.
Babel was the weakest film of the group, preachy and pessimistic. I completely lost trust in the movie at mid point, but it also has some interesting child characters. Each of the 3 stories in Babel features parents and children. The parents are emotionally and/or geographically distant from their children. The children in the Moroccan story are well developed, the father favors his youngest son, the brothers are competitive. I feared they would end up shooting each other. The deaf Japanese girl is an interesting character, acting out her grief and angst, fabricating stories. She pushes her father away and he's not available to her either, yet she's protective of him. The theme of miscommunication (how different rules apply to the wealthy and powerful) works especially well with the Japanese and Moroccan stories. But the idealized white American children kill the movie. They're symbols of purity and innocence and nothing more. They're sacrificial lambs meant to illicit our tears.