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For kids, acting no longer child’s play

A critical look at an indie trend

From the evidence on view in many films at Sundance, it isn’t easy being a kid these days. On the other hand, it may be the best of times for child actors.

Children get a very rough ride in pictures on view throughout this year’s festival, be they American or foreign, dramatic or documentary. Innocence, as well as the impulse to maintain the preserve of childhood as long as possible, seems to be a thing of the past.

The most notorious piece of evidence, of course, is “Hounddog,” the so-called Dakota Fanning rape picture in which a frisky, flirtatious, barefooted Southern sprite is violated in a barn by a bad ol’ boy, with the unwitting complicity of another youngster. As everyone who has seen the film has agreed, the scene in question is handled with restraint and decorum and is over quickly. They also agree that the film is a piece of recycled Southern Gothic waste — a sentiment evidently seconded by the many buyers who have been emptying their pockets all over town this year but have steered clear of “Hounddog.”

As usual, the fuss over the film was principally driven in advance by people who hadn’t seen the picture and never will. The questions most of us were asking after the fact were: What were Fanning and her obviously savvy stage mother thinking when they embraced this project? and How did the director, Deborah Kampmeier, who had made but one tiny independent film previously, even get to Fanning and persuade her, her family and agents to come on board? Not that in-demand stars like Fanning, whose studio-project price reportedly is $3 million, shouldn’t step out sometimes to do risky indie projects; of course they should. But why this one?

CHILDREN WERE finding the world a risky place to be almost everywhere one turned at Sundance. The unedifying “An American Crime,” co-starring another of the best young thesps on the rise today, Ellen Page, is based on the true story of an Indiana teenager who was locked in a basement and gradually tortured to death by a surrogate mom and some unbridled kids. “Snow Angels” hinges on the death of a little girl and its ramifications for her parents and their small community. In “Grace Is Gone,” John Cusack plays a father who drives his two daughters around for days before he can bring himself to tell them their soldier mother has been killed in Iraq.

Two dramatic films deal with the precarious situation facing youngsters in Mexico. “Trade” looks at teenagers abducted to be forced into the sex business, while the rather more gentle favorite “La Misma Luna” (The Same Moon) involves the attempt of a 9-year-old Mexican boy to find his mother, who is working illegally on the other side of the border.

The kidnapping of African children to be turned into rebel soldiers is addressed in the French-Nigerian drama “Ezra” as well as the American docu “War Dance.” Israeli kibbutz life in the ’70s is portrayed as far from idyllic for a 12-year-old boy in “Sweet Mud,” while the same period is seen through a different prism in the French film “Blame It on Fidel,” in which a young girl’s life in Paris is thrown into chaos when her parents immerse themselves in revolutionary causes.

No doubt the youngest kid to be put through the wringer — this one in real life — is 4-year-old art prodigy Marla Olmstead, whose 15 minutes of fame as an alleged pint-sized Pollock are examined in the well-received docu “My Kid Could Paint That.”

NOT THAT KIDS had no fun at all onscreen at Sundance this year. The film that hit the biggest pickup jackpot this year was “Son of Rambow,” a fanciful British film about ’80s kids inspired into filmmaking of their own by Sylvester Stallone’s first Rambo adventure. Bob Shaye’s turn in the director’s chair, “The Last Mimzy,” runs in the traditional vein of childhood adventure and sci-fi.

The one film here that tells a tale of child empowerment is, I’m afraid, the creepiest. “Joshua,” also acquired at the festival for big bucks, centers on a New York City boy who, at just 9, already appears to be a master manipulator far ahead of the adults around him. To give him a comeuppance in the sequel, perhaps he will be sent to a kibbutz, adopted by self-absorbed radical parents or, God forbid, made to live with an old coot of an uncle in a shack down in Alabama.

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