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Summertime Rolls: Super 8 & The Tree of Life

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At first blush, there doesn’t seem to be much common ground shared by Super 8 and The Tree of Life. One is a monster movie seen through the prism of Steven Spielberg’s sensibilities and the other is nothing less than a rumination of the meaning of our very existence.

Since so much has already been written about Spielberg’s fingerprints on the final product of Super 8 and the (for some) frustratingly disjointed yet ambitious narrative of The Tree of Life, I thought it better to focus on the commonalities. Both of these movies are seen through the eyes of the children who inhabit the movie’s universes, and both Terrence Malick (director of Tree of Life) and JJ Abrams (Super 8) have stacked their decks with fantastic kid performers.

Finding the good (and by “good”, I mean not insanely obnoxious) child actors can be a downright Herculean task. For kids to act like “kids”, it takes a writer and a director who understands the speech patterns, the slang, and the body language of a kid. This is why Big was the best “Kid in an Adult Body” movie- Tom Hanks understood the physicality of a 12 year old, where, say, Judge Reinghold (in Vice Versa) thought it enough to simply ride a skateboard while wearing a business suit.

When you find yourself watching a movie with an obnoxious child performance, the experience can be quite brutal.  How about that kid in The Blind Side?  Or Robin Williams’ adorable little daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire? These are children that make people face the dark places in their souls, where they can co-exist as human beings who do not want to punch children while simultaneously wanting to punch these children in the face.  Add to this that both of these particular kids are so fake cute, so precocious in a way that kids never are, that any verisimilitude that the movies have tried to dredge up at the point are moot.

Because there is an art to “acting” like a kid, and both Super 8 and The Tree of Life nail it. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being Stand By Me, I would say that the kids in Super 8 are around an 8 (I would put that at about Joe Dante’s Explorers), and The Tree of Life kids are perfection, a 10.  But what both movies do, and do very well, is create nostalgia for a childhood that no one but perhaps the directors actually experienced.

The first half of Super 8 is better than the second half, mainly because the movie frontloads its secret weapon- the “kids making a movie” plotline. I made a ton of movies with video cameras (some still exist somewhere, probably), and when the movie just chronicles their film obsession, Super 8 is perfect. Every single one of the kids is perfectly cast, although my favorites were the fat kid and the bucktoothed kid. I found it weird that while it was fair game to make fun of the fat kid, no one ever mentioned Bucktown’s orthodonture.

I remember making a movie in a friend’s basement called “Camp Bar Mitzvah” (none of us were Jewish, so I hope we were respectful of the religion and culture.  Hey, with a title like that, we must have, right?).  It was a take-off on the “Friday the 13th series, except at a Jewish day camp, I guess. We also filmed a bunch of post-apocalyptic Mad Max-type movies after watching The Road Warrior, of course.  Like the kids of Super 8 (and director JJ Abrams), we emulated what we were watching.  There wasn’t an original idea in our heads, and there really isn’t in Abrams head, either. Maybe that is the point of the movie- a familiarity and nostalgia cocktail should be enough?

If it isn’t obvious, I liked watching these kids film a movie far more than watching them fight a monster, but I guess a summer movie isn’t a summer movie without a Cloverfieldian monster to battle. If you are looking for a good action set-piece in Super 8, the train crash at the beginning is the best thing in it. I don’t use the word “sensational” very often, primarily because the life I lead doesn’t usually call for it, but there is no other word to describe this scene.  Still, I think if I had to pick a train crash scene, I’d go with The Fugitive, bad green screen and all.

The children actors in The Tree of Life are maybe the best I’ve seen, right up there with Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver, Lucas Black in Slingblade, and Huckleberry Fox in Terms of Endearment. The Tree of Life isn’t bound to any particular narrative; instead, we experience snippets of some formative summers in Texas for these children.  The main actor, Hunter McCracken, is so good, so natural, that he makes the name Haley Joel Osment a forgotten whisper in the night.  I’m not even sure this kid should ever act again; he should hang up the cletes, a perfect one-and-done.  I’m not sure I want to watch McCraken sully this performance with whatever stupid movie comes a’ courtin’.

You get a chance to watch these kids just playing, the way you do when you are twelve and it is summer. I don’t know how Terrence Malick was able to get this sort of natural play, but it may have something to do that he makes movies with the regularity of Brigadoon appearances. I suppose with that sort of time, he was able to film and film until he got what he wanted. However it was done, it was one of the more affecting movies I’ve seen in quite some time, and a lot of that has to do with these youngsters.

I liked both of these movies, although I would say that Tree of Life is mandatory viewing where Super 8 is… just fine.

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