Childhood, poverty and politics

Politics and realism

There are a great many points of comparison across these films, but in conclusion I want to focus on two that are particularly relevant to my wider concerns in ‘Growing Up Modern’. The first relates directly to their politics, and to the issue of realism.

To state the obvious, all of these films are about individual children. Indeed, with the exception of Arbor’s friendship with Swifty, each of the heroes is strikingly isolated from his peers. Billy Casper, Arbor and Swifty, are all bullied by other chidren, not least because of their poverty itself. James tries to fit in with the group of older boys, but can’t quite manage it. And Billy Elliot is set apart from other boys by his passion for dance, rather than boxing. Both Billies, as well as James, are characterized by a dislike of the compulsory boyish preoccupation of football. Meanwhile, none of them enjoys harmonious relationships with their siblings: all four are bullied, abused, or simply neglected by older brothers or sisters. They are all largely alone in their attempts to come to terms with their circumstances.

As I have argued, the possibility of escape is a recurring preoccupation across all four films. Escape is often associated with nature, most obviously with Billy Casper and the kestrel, or Swifty and the horses – a very traditional theme in representations of childhood. While this recurs in Ratcatcher – in the form of the new house and the wheat-field – it is also parodied in the figure of Kenny, who is dubbed ‘animal boy’ by the gang, and who frequently displays his RSPCA badge. Billy Elliot is different, in the sense that the central character’s passion is for artistic expression rather than nature; and of all of them, his escape is the only one that ultimately succeeds. James’s final escape to the new house is ambiguous and dream-like. For Arbor in The Selfish Giant, the possibility of escape through scrapping is doomed; and in the final shot, we see him too grooming the horses. It may be that a commercial film like Billy Elliot effectively requires a happy ending; but it also reflects what I have called its more Blairite political stance.

However, to a large extent, these are all individual forms of escape. Billy Elliot’s escape entails self-discipline and effort, but it is achieved quite literally at the expense of the community that supports him: he escapes just as their collective struggle is defeated. He is inspired by his teacher, but she is abruptly left behind. By contrast, however vocal he may be in Mr. Farthing’s classroom, Billy Casper cannot ‘cash in’ his self-taught passion for falconry into educational success: while we do not see into his future, he seems almost predestined to enter the pit. Meanwhile, Arbor might be seen as the perfect Thatcherite entrepreneur: his initial success at scrapping involves an entry to an adult economic world, albeit one that is presented as brutal and corrupt. However feasible and desirable these different escape attempts may be, they are all to do with the individual somehow transcending or reaching beyond their circumstances.

One predictable political criticism would be to argue that most of these films fail to present a wider social picture: they are trapped in a kind of descriptive social realism. The show people living in poverty – in effect, the casualties of capitalism – but they do not present the wider socio-political context of inequality. Clive Nwonka makes this argument in relation to The Selfish Giant (and a similar film, Fish Tank, which I’ll be considering in a later essay): these films, he argues, are merely naturalistic, portraying conflicts at the level of individuals’ everyday lives (within classes) while ignoring the wider conflicts (between classes). As such, he asserts, they are essentially depoliticizing. Thus, for example, we see Swifty’s father selling the family sofa, and then berating his wife and kids, but we don’t see the ‘structural determinants’ that make this necessary. It is a tragedy of individuals, rather than of a whole political system. Nwonka argues that this sanctions a kind of sentimentality, which he compares unfavourably with the (apparently) Marxist analysis of Ken Loach’s films.

This argument might have some mileage in relation to Loach’s later films, but (as I have implied) I don’t believe it holds up in relation to Kes. Some commentators – such as Ken Jones and Hannah Davies – point to the film’s highly critical view of the contemporary education system; but whether this amounts to a more systematic political critique is doubtful. There are strong elements of pathos and sentimentality in Kes, especially in the lyrical representation of nature, which make it appear quite manipulative. The more schematic political analysis of Loach’s later films results (in my unpopular view) in thin characterization and a lack of narrative plausibility – as in the case of the wildly over-praised I, Daniel Blake. Perhaps paradoxically, the film that provides the strongest sense of the contemporary political context here is actually the Blairite commercial hit Billy Elliot.

Even so, when looking at the critical reception of Ratcatcher and The Selfish Giant, one might be forgiven a degree of scepticism about their political implications. It would not be fair to accuse either of these films of ‘class disgust’: on the contrary, they are both essentially sympathetic to their central characters, despite the fact that both of them are guilty of some pretty horrendous deeds. These are not ‘chav kids’ held up for mockery. And yet these are art-house movies, to be largely consumed by audiences whose lives are light years removed from those of the children they represent. Are these films not, on some level, a kind of voyeuristic ‘poverty porn’ – the cinematic equivalent of volunteering at the local food bank, before rushing home to our designer kitchens, feeling smug and self-satisfied?


Representing childhood

Children obviously appear in a great many films; but the films I have been discussing here are fundamentally about childhood. Their protagonists don’t just happen to be children: the experience and meaning of childhood is central to what the films are doing. And yet, paradoxically, these are not ‘children’s films’. Indeed, with the exception of Kes, all of them are classified in the UK with a 15 rating, meaning that they should not legally be shown to young people who are the same age as their leading protagonists. This is partly a result of the use of ‘bad’ language, and in some cases sex and violence; but more broadly we could say that these films (and especially Ratcatcher and The Selfish Giant) are not intended for a child audience. Rather, they tell stories about childhood to an audience of adults.

Much of the critical discussion of childhood in the cinema focuses on similar ‘art films’. Academics such as Vicky Lebeau, Emma Wilson and Karen Lury have written eloquently about films as diverse as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, L’Enfant Sauvage, Spirit of the Beehive, Pan’s Labyrinth and All About My Mother. However, none of these are aimed at (or, I would suspect, widely seen by) children themselves. However, such critics do draw attention to some inherent qualities of cinema that seem to make it particularly effective as a means of representing children’s experiences and children’s point of view. As they suggest, there is something about the visual or the cinematic that can take us back to early childhood, and even to infancy: the hallucinatory quality of cinema, its ability to move beyond the limits of language, enables it to address the sensations of childhood (the sounds and visions, as well as the bodily experiences) and the emotions (of loss, of anxiety, of bewilderment…) that often accompany them.

As I have suggested, this quality is especially apparent here in Ratcatcher, not least in its use of sound and close-up cinematography. These qualities are also evident in The Selfish Giant, especially in the moments where the narrative appears to stop, and we are left simply observing the landscape – although these shots are notably not linked to the child’s point of view. They are less apparent in the more commercial entertainment of Billy Elliot or the more traditional social realism of Kes – although the narratives of both of them clearly work to align the viewer with the perspective of the child protagonist. One aspect that runs through all four films is the emphasis on play as the distinctive preoccupation of childhood: in all of these films, we see the characters engaging in what seem to be entirely aimless, pleasurable forms of play with everyday objects. Even in Billy Elliot, there are moments where artistic expression is presented as a form of play, rather than exclusively of self-improving work.

In different ways, all four films present some kind of ‘coming of age’ narrative. Billy Casper stands on the edge of adulthood and leaving school; Billy Elliot likewise has to escape from an adult future trapped in a (now declining) mining industry. James is surrounded by older boys, who bully him and sexually abuse Margaret Anne, and his life isn’t exactly overflowing with adult role models. Meanwhile, Arbor’s attempt to find a place in the adult world of the scrappers leads to disaster. These adult worlds are all very clearly represented as masculine, in some cases quite brutally so; and it’s important to note that these children are all boys. It may well be that, as Lynne Ramsay suggests in relation to Ratcatcher, the options for boys in this kind of situation are more limited – although one could certainly argue that girls are equally limited, but in different ways.

Either way, as children, they are all downtrodden, exploited, and misunderstood; although the prospect of adulthood doesn’t seem to offer them much relief. As such, growing up is generally regarded with great ambivalence, if not with despair. The obvious exception here is Billy Elliot, whose Blairite faith in the idea that ‘things can only get better’ leads to a highly optimistic (if utterly individualistic) conclusion. By contrast, Kes offers no hope for Billy Casper’s future; and the endings of Ratcatcher and The Selfish Giant are at best ambiguous, offering only small glimmerings of hope.

And yet in all the films, children are nevertheless active agents, who retain some ability to influence – if not ultimately to determine – their own fate. In this, they frequently have to act without the support of adults, and in some cases in the face of their powerful opposition. Again, Billy Elliot stands out as the most optimistic in this sense: Billy’s attempt to ‘follow the dream’ succeeds in a way that is not obviously the case for any of the others – although he is also the least isolated of them all. Yet even in the desperation of dire poverty, amid exploitation and oppression, and in the face of disastrous accidents that are well beyond their control, the children retain a degree of hope and persistence. Only in the first alternative ending of Ratcatcher, with James’s apparent suicide, do we see complete abandonment and despair. Quite how adults might ever speak to children about these issues, and how children might respond to them – and how children’s cinema might come closer to representing such experiences – are at this point genuinely open questions.


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