In “Showbiz Kids,” a rambunctious and revealing documentary about what it’s like to be a child star in Hollywood, Henry Thomas, from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (he was 10 then — he’s now 48), tells a terrific story about what it feels like to learn that your days as a movie star are numbered. Early on, we see a tape of his audition for “E.T.,” and it’s stunning — he acts with such authentic tearful woe that you want to applaud. There are clips of him on the set, taking direction from Steven Spielberg, and he recalls how insecure he felt around the other kid actors. Even after “E.T.” became a phenomenon, and he was sought out for the lead in films like “Cloak & Dagger,” Thomas was never entirely sure he knew what he was doing.

But it wasn’t until the late ’80s that everything in his career just sort of…stopped. He would come to an audition, and the producers were still expecting to see the doe-eyed, mop-topped 11-year-old Henry Thomas. One by one, they would stroll out into the green room to take a sidelong glance at the now-adolescent-looking actor. Who was then told: Sorry, the audition is going to have to be rescheduled…

There are any number of TV documentaries, and tabloid-TV segments, about the agony and ecstasy of being a child star. The familiar tropes of these sagas have a way of fusing — or, at least, being made to rhyme — in a way that’s nearly mythological. The pint-sized adorableness and precocious talent. The catapult to fame. The perks of Hollywood, and the hermetic bubble of it: the long hours on the set, the absence from school, the alienation from the simple pleasures enjoyed by “normal” kids. The drowning of all that confusion in a cocktail of fast-lane freedom and substance abuse. The crackup. And then (sometimes) the comeback. Shirley, Judy, Mickey, and Jackie. Drew, Corey, Lindsay, and River. All living a desolate joyride of growing up too fast on camera.

“Showbiz Kids” doesn’t deny the voyeuristic pull of these stories. It opens with a montage spotlighting most of those people, along with others who had better luck (like Ron Howard, Jodie Foster, and Daniel Radcliffe), finally landing on a photograph of the documentary’s director, Alex Winter, who was a child actor on and off Broadway before finding his second-banana cult fame in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” (He has since gone on to become an ace nonfiction filmmaker, though he’ll be back on screens, hopefully this year, in “Bill & Ted Face the Music.”) The reality of child stardom is that an essential unreality is baked into it. That‘s why it’s so often about the wheels coming off at high speeds.

Yet child stardom, which used to be a bit of a freak phenomenon, has also become an unabashed mainstream goal. “Showbiz Kids” opens with a title that says “Every year, over 20,000 child actors audition for roles in Hollywood. Ninety-five percent of them don’t book a single job.” That’s a lot of hopes and (crashed) dreams, and there’s an explanation for it. In the last two decades, reality TV from “American Idol” to “Dance Moms” has set a new template for stardom (anyone can be one!). And the stage parents who are obsessed with steering their kids to movie and television fame have turned their own economic desperation into the basis of a kind of celebrity lottery — a go-for-broke way of climbing out of the 99 percent. Child stardom now feels like one of the last aspirations of a decadent, no-future America. And “Showbiz Kids” is an invaluable primer of its risks and rewards.

Winter follows an ordinary couple, the Slaters from Orlando, who spend a lot of money each year, including savings, to take their towheaded son, Marc, to Los Angeles for audition season. Does he want to be an actor? Hard to say. He’s got a certain owlish look, and a certain punchy way of delivering lines that may be just the ticket, or that may be the way a hundred other punchy kids deliver lines.

Who has the X Factor? It can all seem a bit random. Winter interviews one of Hollywood‘s original child stars, Diana Serra Cary, who was born in 1918, and we see her in ancient film clips as Baby Peggy (her stage name), the world’s most celebrated 5-year-old, all dressed up as a clown, a matador, and other cutely grotesque versions of a wee Victorian “adult.” As she recalls, “The life of a child was not my life.”

Winter lived the life himself, and knows that we’ve seen the scandals replayed once too often. Instead, he focuses on a group of gifted former child stars, not to revel in tales of addiction and breakdown but to capture the perils of the life even for those who adapt to it with a degree of functionality. Don’t worry, there’s still lots of drama. That’s because the upshot of the movie is: The life of a child star is a little insane even when the star in question remains sane.

Milla Jovovich, whose movies tended to treat her as an exotic object, says she mostly hated the experience, adding, “I was really a little girl that wanted to play with dolls.” Wil Wheaton, who became a star in “Stand by Me,” recalls the gratification of making that movie (director Rob Reiner spent two weeks training the actors to shuck off their training in order to locate the characters in themselves). But then he takes us inside the experience of becoming a fixture on the teen-beat circuit, a role he felt profoundly uncomfortable with. Todd Bridges, from “Diff’rent Strokes,” flew high and fell low, whereas Cameron Boyce, who became one of the featured actors on the Disney Channel’s “Jessie” (and died, of an epileptic seizure, in 2019), describes an unusually happy ongoing experience on set. It doesn’t seem coincidental that that occurred within the lockstep Disney TV universe, a place that breeds child actors who seem to speak with their own laugh tracks.

Evan Rachel Wood, on the other hand, came from what she describes as a family of snobs, who treated acting as a way of aiming high — and she did, giving one of the great child performances of her time in “Thirteen.” But the fact that she achieved something extraordinary didn’t make it easy. There were profound confusions to exploring a sexuality that was ahead of where she was in life. She came out the other side, but where Wood now seems the essence of even-keeled adulthood, you can feel the scars at work underneath the recollections of Wheaton, or Mara Wilson, the little girl in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” who grew up into what she describes as a non-cute young adult, thereby veering off the script that show business had chosen for her.

What’s eerie is that, with the massification of child stardom, more kids than ever now seem ready to embrace a form of existence that involves being “on” all the time. Or maybe being on is simply the new yourself, in which case those who win the child-star lottery may now actually embrace what they’re in for.

‘Showbiz Kids’ on HBO: TV Review

Reviewed online, July 14, 2020. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: 94 MIN.

  • Production: An HBO Documentary Films release of a Trouper production, in association with Zipper Bros. Films, Ringer Films. Producers: Alex Winter, Glen Zipper. Executive producer: Bill Simmons.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Alex Winter. Camera: Anghel Decca. Editor: Weston Cadwell. Music: Jeff Tweedy, Spencer Tweedy, Sammy Tweedy.
  • Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Henry Thomas, Wil Wheaton, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cameron Boyce, Todd Bridges, Milla Jovovich, Mara Wilson, Diana Serra Cary, Tricia Miranda, Demi Singleton, Melanie Slater, Jeff Slater, Marc Slater, Todd Thaler.