Youth Impact Report 2010: Kid Critics

Pauline Kael was 33 when she wrote her first film review, which she did at the invitation of an editor who overheard her arguing about Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight” in a San Francisco coffee shop.

By contrast, Jackson Murphy, aka “Lights Camera Jackson,” was 7 when he started reviewing movies for Radio Disney. Now 11, the prepubescent pundit weighs in each week for local paper the Record, upstate New York TV network YNN and, as of this Monday, Australia-based Seven Network’s “The Morning Show.”

Jackson, the youngest-ever winner of a New York Emmy for his high-energy, highly opinionated critiques, attracted national attention this summer when he went on CBS’ “The Early Show” to offer his insights into “Inception”: “Really confusing! The movie isn’t really made for people my age,” he ranted.

But he’s hardly the only kid critic on the scene. Just this past Sunday, the San Diego Press Club awarded 10-year-old Union-Tribune critic Perry Chen its Excellence in Journalism award. “I offer a kid’s perspective. I think kids’ opinions are important,” says Chen, who has been grading movies on his trademark five-starfish scale since he was 8.

Even younger is Riley McNamara, who started contributing to KidsPickFlicks.com when she was 4. Older brother Cole launched the message board-style site in 2004 with the intention that kids from all over the world could share their opinions about movies — an idea inspired by the fact that his mom wouldn’t let him see “Van Helsing” on account of all the bad reviews it had gotten from grown-up critics.

“It had been universally panned, and I felt that was wrong,” Cole McNamara says. “It gave all the things I wanted in a film.” For the next six years, he reviewed nearly every film that might have interested kids or teens, posting them to the site. The 16-year-old has since handed over the reins to other kids, explaining, “I’ve aged out of that target audience of those movies.”

According to mother Tara McNamara (who contributed to this section), “Cole doesn’t know if he wants to still be a film critic when he goes to college, but he does know that he wants to be an entrepreneur. He always had business ideas, but they were really expensive, so when he came up with this one, I thought ‘OK, we can put up the website.’?”

In addition to reviews, Chen uses his personal website to blog about film festivals, red-carpet events and his latest project, a Holocaust-themed short film he’s making with animator Bill Plympton. The Internet has gone a long way in making it possible for kids to self-publish their reviews, which in turn leads to opportunities with legitimate outlets.

“It got me my TV job and a lot of other things. I think the Web is very important for publicity,” says the uncannily articulate Jackson, son of former Albany sportscaster Dan Murphy (who takes no credit for his son’s success but could explain his high-energy camera presence).

Though they each started out buying their own tickets and seeing films with normal audiences, the young critics were eventually added to studio press lists, which gives them a chance to mingle with their adult peers at all-media screenings (nothing R-rated, of course).

When asked about their influences, the kid critics invariably refer to Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin and other TV personalities, and their reviews tend to be heavy with the sort of superlatives featured in movie advertising — “visually stunning,” “a delightful feast” and other verbiage that suggest more time spent reading quote blurbs than actual critics.

One explanation could be the fact that the ever-graying professional critical community (with the possible exception of bloggers and E! Online’s youngish Ben Lyons) isn’t really in touch with young viewers.

“Some of the adult critics don’t like movies geared toward young adults, whereas I think they’re halfway good,” says Jackson, who went against the herd with a somewhat skeptical take on PG-13-rated “The Social Network.”

Unlike Cole McNamara and Chen (who wants to be a filmmaker when he grows up), Jackson doesn’t think of reviewing as a hobby at all. “I think it’s the start of a career that I hope to continue when I get older,” he says. “It’s already a job, really.”

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