A sometimes extremely self-indulgent, sometimes extremely touching project, the slickly made “About Us: The Dignity of Children” offers uncanny insights from kids, teaches kindness — and can’t quite shake the feeling of being completely scripted, as it’s devoid of spontaneity, something that children are famous for. Oprah Winfrey, whose childhood, as we all know, wasn’t exactly a bed of roses, hosts with teary-eyed remembrances that are no doubt sincere but seem like re-treads. Let’s hear the kids.
Press materials say that ABC made a “profound commitment” to produce an “innovative special to celebrate the world of children.” Debra Reynolds, founder of the Children’s Dignity Project; Jeff Jacobs, founder of CIVITAS; and film producer Fred Berner began this assignment in 1994.
Other goals of the producers included “conjuring up the experience of childhood; the sounds, sights and smells that live inside everyone’s memories”; and structuring the spec as a feature film, with three acts and a narrative style to the story telling.
Noble as these goals are, the production falls short of delivering on its promises.Trendy camerawork and editing — musicvideo-like handheld shots, jump cuts, artsy metaphorical sequences — undermine any sincerity and don’t entertain, even bore. The words of the subjects interviewed are lost amid the TV commercial-like glitz and fancy shots.
The stories would be more effective without the fancy visuals, or maybe a simpler, cleaner approach is needed to bolster the poignancy of the tales told.
As for the structure, to the ordinary viewer “Dignity” will look more stream of consciousness than anything.
And the people behind the project searched cross-country — exhaustively — for the children who made the cut. But those kids, with a couple exceptions, are the hammiest children outside of an “Annie” audition, and come off as excellent little actors. One little blonde girl, with the practiced insincerity of a sorority sister, claims, “I feel really sorry for kids whose parents are divorced.” Save it, sweetie.
But the story of Tony, a victim of horrific child abuse — he contracted AIDS as a direct result of the abuses he suffered — tells his story with anger and bewilderment and dignity, and will elicit tears and anger from the audience.
Also deeply moving are the memories of the adults interviewed, especially author Brent Staples, who talks about his poor childhood and abusive father without self-pity.
But indulgent sequences used as commentary, like an elaborate bassinet falling apart or soap bubbles bursting, add nothing and actually undermine the power of the speakers’ words. You can’t help but see the filmmaker in “Dignity,” but you don’t want to.
It’s clear that the lesson here is “Treat your children well,” and a noble and righteous sentiment it is, but this overly long spec won’t hold viewers’ interest, and kids, who are wiser than we know, will see through the slickness.