What to Watch Verdict
A collection of familiar if undeniably powerful stories of struggles faced by child stars, told from their own perspective.
⭐️ Director Alex Winter gives his subjects the freedom to recall experiences, good and bad, in their own words.
⭐️ Interviewees like Evan Rachel Wood, Mara Wilson and Wil Wheaton recount their formative years in often demoralizing detail.
⭐️ As vivid a portrait as Winter paints, it's hard to know if there is a healthier path for young performers to follow in Tinseltown.
There are way, way too many cautionary tales in show business history to really touch on more than a few individuals whose childhood stardom did not quite lead to lifelong success, prosperity and happiness. But Showbiz Kids explores its handful of interview subjects with patience and sensitivity, offering a more intimate look at what has sadly become a familiar story. Bill & Ted star and documentarian Alex Winter thinly sketches a pattern of the industry’s use, abuse and disregard of child stars, while allowing some of that cycle’s survivors to tell their stories first hand, and highlighting the familiar pitfalls that they seem to repeatedly face.
Opening with a profile of late actress Dianna Serra Cary, who made hundreds of films in the 1920s before her stuntman father got her blacklisted (by age seven), Winter traces a throughline from the very earliest days of moviemaking to present day. (Winter dedicates the film to Cary and former Disney star Cameron Boyce, who passed away late last year and features heavily in the film.) The exceptions who survived their careers, or whose careers survived, Winter observes, were few and far between. What happened much more frequently was that these performers outgrew their attractiveness, succumbed to the pressures of showbiz life, or discovered they no longer wanted to pursue the career from which their parent or guardian was supposed to protect them.
Among the individuals interviewed, Winter speaks to Henry Thomas (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), Todd Bridges (Diff’rent Strokes), Mara Wilson (Mrs. Doubtfire), Jada Pinkett (A Different World) and Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen). Each of them charts their path in their own words, talking about what led them to their careers. In most cases, it's a parent who either came from the industry, or pushed their child toward it because they didn’t. What emerges is, again, an identifiable double-edged sword of popularity and alienation; wealth and neglect; ambition and manipulation.
Thomas, for example, became a phenomenon overnight because of E.T., but no one prepared him for that level of fame, or for the shifting power dynamics on future projects where collaborators equated his commercial success with a professional authority - at barely ten years of age. Boyce, who died tragically from epilepsy, seems to have the most honest (if uncertain) perspective about his tremendous success, and how it might have shaped his future, but his was the latest in a long list of performers who never got to show their potential as adults - or the world didn’t want to see it, anyway.
What’s perhaps most fascinating is the way that these children are treated like commodities, not just by a single individual, but the machinery of the entertainment industry. They carry tremendous expectations to perform, to work long hours and adopt lifestyles unlike those of other children their age. They endure hurtful reviews from indifferent critics, and then when they fail, or implode, their descent is reduced to tabloid fodder. (Bridges survived his own substance abuse problems, but only after watching his child co-stars Gary Coleman and Dana Plato succumb to theirs.) And in the midst of this turbulent process, Mara Wilson observes, no one asks them, “how are you?” At one point she loses a tooth on camera during a press interview, and it’s impossible to describe the combination of fear, embarrassment and uncertainty that washed over her young face.
Wil Wheaton recounts not only his treatment as an overnight movie star thanks to Stand By Me, and the experience of working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but his attempts to explain to his family the pain he went through - and they caused. (“They couldn’t hear it,” he says sadly.) Wood, who recently wrapped an acclaimed run on Westworld, offers a particularly measured take on the experience of growing up in front of the camera; she acted in films like Thirteen where she explored a number of grown-up topics while more or less dealing with them simultaneously in real life, and she passed the lessons she learned onto her own children, who she protects fiercely from public scrutiny. But the emerging truth from all of these interviews is the fact that they all gained their “stardom” at the cost of something more fundamental - an ordinary childhood.
Two young actors frame the interviews with older child stars: Marc Slater, a young boy with dreams of being a comedian, and Demi Singleton, a dancer and actress whose momentum on stage and screen seems only to be picking up steam. But somewhere between where Marc’s career lacks heat and Demi’s can’t slow down, it feels like there has to be a more sensitive way to guide these young performers through both their formative years and the fledgling steps of a professional acting career. Although there are a lot of important lessons to take away from his interviewees’ experiences, Winter suggests that for child stars actual or aspiring, there are no easy solutions to protecting their innocence, at least not until kids come first before showbiz, rather than the other way around.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.
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