Sundance Channel // 2004 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // January 20th, 2006
"When they hit puberty, we chew them up and spit them out...they spend the rest of their lives entertaining us in the tabloids."
Childstar is the new film by writer/director/actor Don McKellar (Last Night, The Red Violin, Twitch City), one of the few ubiquitous Canadians who can turn a home-grown profit in his industry...almost. Nobody really turns a profit in Canada making Canadian movies, which is why we spend Canadians much time luring American productions to come film in Canada.
I mention this because this is kind of what Childstar is all about. A scathing blithe comedy about the ludicrousness of the film industry and popular culture, hot from the film festival circuit where it received major buzz and high praise, Childstar was somehow unceremoniously ignored by major studios despite the positive reviews.
Of course, in this courtroom, we care naught for positive reviews! Err, unless they're our own.
Rick Shiller (Don McKellar) is an aspiring filmmaker in Toronto who, like all aspiring filmmakers in Toronto, is forced to do menial tasks to stay in "the business" to make ends meet, like driving famous American stars around all day. Like any good independent filmmaker, he is never far from his camera and takes great interest in capturing the world around him. His new chauffeuring charge is Taylor Brandon Burns, a 12-year-old child star who commands his surroundings with the icy control of a Hollywood veteran. His mother Suzanne (Jennifer Jason Leigh) soon recruits Rick for her own purposes, leaving the child star to run amuck in town...where he suffers something of a mid-life career crisis, breaks down, and decides he has had quite enough of the filmmaking business, announcing this to his guardians by vanishing completely.
It is up to Rick to bring the missing child star home safely, while at the same time trying to keep his job intact by avoiding (or failing to avoid) Suzanne's romantic overtures, keeping the anxious cast and crew happy, and piecing together Taylor's whereabouts. Throughout, Rick keeps his camera rolling, capturing the ensuing chaos that unfolds throughout the streets of Toronto. Rick soon discovers that the glitzy, glamorous, exploitative lifestyle of a child actor pales in comparison to the behind-the-scenes drama.
Now, if the premise sounds corny, it is. Childstar is so soaked in satire and parody that, unless you are intimately familiar with the sarcastic biting tone of McKellar's writing (fans of Twitch City or, to a lesser extent, Kids In The Hall will no doubt understand), you may get the wrong idea about this film. It drips irony, overflowing like a marble fountain. Be wary taking anything at face value, because odds are, you are being made fun of.
Childstar is not quite as poignant or brilliant as everyone had made it out to be, but that's film festival gossip for you. As previously mentioned, Childstar received a lot of positive press in Canada on the film festival circuit, but received little theatrical distribution, which is the usual fate of critically acclaimed Canadian films. Even on native soil, it somehow failed to connect with audiences beyond the buzz of the red carpet during the Toronto Film Festival. After the lights died away, the carpets rolled up and the limousines rolled out of town, Childstar somehow ended up with little distribution, ending up airing on the Sundance Channel. Considering the film takes almost ecstatic pleasure in deriding the film industry, this can hardly be surprising.
The anxieties expressed in Childstar are unmistakably Canadian, especially those focusing on the cultural domination of Hollywood in North America and the state of the Canadian film industry as a whole. McKellar has some bones to pick with his film industry delegated to being a cheap backlot studio to the Hollywood movie machine. Though Canada indeed makes movies, its film industry has failed to develop the same blockbuster culture surrounding Hollywood filmmaking, lacking the money, the motivation, and the madness that surround Hollywood. Canada makes quiet films full of "sex and snowshoes" as the old joke goes, the most exciting of which usually amount to David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan-esque productions. Yet an inordinate amount of Hollywood films are shot in Canada, attracted by low exchange rates and large tax incentives. It is the dichotomy that keeps the Canadian film crews employed and their creative visionaries out of work.
Childstar is keenly aware of this fact and, indeed, Rick seems completely at odds with the hype and hoopla surrounding young Taylor's entourage, of the complex dance between parent, director, and producer, and the endless amounts of money being tossed around. He projects a low-key, sardonic wit that is diametrically opposed to the intense emotions surrounding him. There is a sense of this frustration in Childstar, but it gives way to more pertinent issues. What comes through most strongly in Childstar is the insanity that Hollywood as a cultural phenomenon represents and how outsiders perceive the Hollywood tabloid culture. Nothing personifies this better than the child star himself, raised from innocence into a cutthroat world of glamour shots and ruthlessly manipulative parents, forced to stunt their emotional and physical development for the needs of the masses. Then, having outgrown their cuteness, former child stars are delegated to the tabloids to be antagonized and mocked for the rest of their lives, never able to escape from their past.
Yeah...that's a bit thick, I know. But Childstar is extremely empathetic towards this particular opinion to the point of being heavy-handed and preachy, downright acerbic in its criticism of popular culture. The film points the finger at the voyeur himself -- the audience -- for it is our demand that creates the ready supply of parents ready to sacrifice their children's lives for our entertainment needs. Rick steps into the dysfunctional dichotomy between Taylor and his mother and immediately becomes a pseudo-surrogate force of normality, grounding both the unreasonable child star and the self-centered mother into a dry, sardonic Rockwellian family unit. Pity the child star, for he is the perfect child to everyone...and yet, nobody takes responsibility for him. Some of the nuances about the relationship between father and son are the most hilarious aspect of Childstar, especially when Taylor expresses desire to see his "dad."
McKellar does triple duty as the writer/actor/director and does admirable in all three roles; his cinematic compositions and framing are particularly profound and skillful. All the elements for a quirky comedy are here: isolation, anxiety, and manipulation made funny, decent acting performances, sharp dialogue and the underlying realization that no other country besides Canada in the world could put out a film quite like it. Of course, considering most Canadians barely acknowledge the film, this does not speak well in the film's favor.
Audio and video are reasonable, considering the film must have had a modest budget to work with. Some of the CGI effects (yes) are pretty cheesy, but this is no doubt intentional...it works with the joke. The color palate is reasonable enough, with ghostly blues and greys but vibrant greens and reds, and black levels are acceptable. Get too close to the film and the fidelity of the transfer artifacts somewhat but, overall, it's a decent presentation. The widescreen format definitely shows off McKellar's clever and amusing framing techniques, which often form the basis for sight gags.
Both a surround and a stereo presentation are available, but there isn't too much difference between the two, as the rear channels rarely get to stretch their legs beyond some atmospheric environmental noises. Bass response on both tracks is fairly level, a bit on the low side. No subtitles.
The single "advertised" feature, a 23-minute "making of" documentary looks like it was made on a home computer, and based on the quality of the transfer, probably was. Still, McKellar is a decent interview subject and makes himself entertaining when on camera, if nothing else. He describes Childstar as a "metaphor for how hard it is to make a movie," which is a pretty decent summation. As these behind-the-scene things go, it is decent.
I say "advertised" feature, because the packing completely fails to mention the DVD's best feature, a full-length commentary track with McKellar and his composer and editor. It is quite excellent, full of light laughs, likeable and polite Canadian dialogue, grievances about finding secure funding for Canadian cinema, and some technical details. Why the packaging failed to mention this excellent feature, I'll never know.
Childstar is far too cynical a film for its own good, and this probably contributed to the utter failure to locate an audience. Sure, all my friends who adore this film beyond reason work in the Canadian film industry in some form or another and can easily identify with Childstar. But everyone else might have some difficulty getting their heads around McKellar's particularly bleak comedic deadpan, even fans of his previous work. The humor here is subtle to say the least; very self-destructive and ironic, but not always amusing.
Childstar feels like a good film, acts and behaves expected like a good film should, and yet the overall experience is somehow less than satisfying. As a film about a child star making a crappy Hollywood action film runs amuck behind the scenes, captured on camera by an independent filmmaker, and kind of gets bogged down by its own sense of irony and self-deprecation. It is unquestionably clever, funny, and poignant, yet at the same time a bit on the vacuous and self-centered side.
The film ends pretty badly as well, on an excessively preachy and melodramatic note, which is unfortunate.
A bitter sense of humor, scathing in its criticisms, sardonic and more than just a bit jaded, Childstar is exactly the kind of film one would expect from Don McKellar. For fans, Childstar is the natural progression in his increasingly sophisticated work, a gradual drift away from wacky esoterica into strong forceful filmmaking. And when it's funny, boy, it's funny.
As for Childstar's universal appeal, the film perhaps lays the angst on a bit too thick, the lack of lighthearted humor hitting the film where it hurts. Like a real child star, perhaps Childstar takes itself just a bit too seriously.
It's no Twitch City, but it'll do.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Sundance Channel
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Director Don McKellar, Composer Christopher Dedrick, and Editor Reginald Harkema
* "Making Of" Documentary with Writer/Director/Actor Don McKellar
* Theatrical Trailer
* Don McKellar Online (Unofficial Site)