By David Raether, veteran TV writer and essayist
The charming movies I’ve selected here are filled with wonder, joy, sorrow, and, most importantly, magic. Great movies about childhood are not only good for kids to watch, but for adults as well. They’re not movies for kids so much as movies about being a kid. Let’s start with a timeless example....
A lonely, orphaned girl living with her elderly aunt and uncle in bleak, isolated Kansas is transported during a tornado into a world of magic, color, and music… but all she really wants to do is go home. This film was the most expensive movie musical made by MGM at the time, but was a box office bust, barely eking out a profit. In the 1950s, CBS television began airing it annually. It soon became an American institution.
Rarely has a child actor so utterly dominated a film, but Judy Garland does in this film. Sweet and unaffected, her performance as both a singer and actress has you completely under her spell. Watch it again. Get swept up in it again. I can guarantee you will be singing songs like “Over the Rainbow” or “The Lollipop Guild” the next day on your way to work.
Personally, I think this is one of the greatest movies ever made about childhood. Ostensibly, it’s a sci-fi thriller. It’s not, really. It’s about being a kid. It’s about believing in things that adults can’t see or seem to understand.
And it contains every kid’s fantasy about their bicycle—that it can finally fly and escape the menacing world of adults. Steven Spielberg tends to have problems with the endings of his movies, and E.T. is no exception. Luckily, that in no way detracts from what this movie has to say about childhood—that it is a world filled with wonder and secrets and magic that adults either crush or misunderstand completely.
Okay, stick with me on this one. You’re just going to have to trust me. It’s in Farsi (with subtitles), and is set in the slums of Tehran, Iran. You’re already turned off, I would guess. But this is one of the most moving and charming films I have ever seen. The story is about a poor boy and his sister who secretly share a pair of shoes. The boy enters a cross country race with the goal of finishing in third because third place wins a pair of new running shoes.
I guarantee you will be cheering and sobbing in the final five minutes. Everyone I have ever recommended this movie to has thanked me. You will, too.
Set in a small Maori village on the eastern coast of New Zealand, this lovely film explores the difficulties of growing up in a traditional culture. Keisha Castle-Hughes stars as Kahu Paikea Apriana, a 12 year-old Maori girl who wants to become chief of her tribe, a desire that constantly is thwarted by her heartbroken, traditionalist grandfather.
Things come to a head when a pod of whales beach themselves by the village, and Paikea proves she deserves the role when she saves the whales by riding the leader back out to sea. Castle-Hughes was the youngest Best Actress nominee at the time. She’s perfect in this role, and this movie is worth watching with your whole family.
Richard Linklater’s marvelous movie about growing up. It took eleven years to make because it follows one boy, Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), as he grows from age six to 18 with his divorced parents in Texas. Shooting started in 2002 when Coltrane was six and finished in 2013 when he was 18.
Linklater shot a couple months each year, and let the story go where it seemed to need to go as the years went on. Nominated for six Academy Awards in total, Patricia Arquette deservedly won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance.
There are a number of other wonderful childhood movies to consider as well, including, obviously, Stand By Me (1986), a classic coming-of-age tale set in the 1950s; The Red Balloon (1956), a 35-minute French gem about a boy chasing a red balloon; National Velvet (1944), which stars 12 year-old Elizabeth Taylor as a horse-crazy girl; and, of course, The Kid (1921), Charlie Chaplin’s silent masterpiece in which The Little Tramp takes in an abandoned infant and raises him as his own.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.