Sidekicks (You Know, for Kids)

by |
12/22/2010 11:30 AM |

The Coen Brothers’ True Grit, adapted from the novel by Charles Portis, is a movie about a fourteen-year-old girl who hires a US Marshal to track the man who slew her pa. Mattie Ross, biblically precise and financially righteous, is a singular figure, but in tagging along with Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) for a rousing Western adventure she’s replaying a wish-fulfilment fantasy at least as old as Treasure Island—though it was even more fantastical in the 1969 film of True Grit, when an aging John Wayne played the cuddly geezer, drunk and curmudgeonly but ultimately admiring of the kid’s moxie, and fiercely protective of her person. Three years later, Wayne starred as the gruff mentor for not quite a dozen peach-fuzz cattle hands in The Cowboys, and lunched with a couple hundred young contest winners in a promotional outreach. The Duke, soon to follow Hollywood’s studio system into the sunset, bridged the generation gap by refashioning himself as a real-life Happy Meal toy.

Both True Grits belong to the bizarre heterogeneous subgenre of movies in which kids play action hero alongside the validating presence of an authentic movie star. Sometimes the action-figure metaphor is literal, as in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when Arnold’s silvery-cool robo-killer of the first movie is transformed into a programmable friend for a thirteen-year-old John Connor. (Presumably the film takes place in 1995 because a nine-year-old Connor would have been, like, babyish.) These are ostensibly grown-up movies; more targeted children’s entertainments are free to be more explicit about the fantasy they’re appealing to (my generation’s circulated Chuck Norris Facts may be a continuation of a friendship dating back to Sidekicks).

I’ll circle back again to the action figure metaphor, because the tied-in marketing aspect is apposite. In some ways these movies are as transactional as Mattie’s agreement with Rooster: the exponential rise in allowance during the postwar years essentially handed the keys to the culture over to an age bracket that has yet to surrender them. In flattering children with fantasies of narrative agency, the movies are well-positioned to profit from their very real financial agency.

And fantasies of agency are what the movies do best—though Winter’s Bone, from earlier this year, was interesting for how hard Jennifer Lawrence’s similarly fatherless teen had to work to gain entry into the neo-noir underworld populated by her older relatives, like moving up from the kids’ table (with John Hawkes’s Uncle Teardrop a more reluctant sponsor than Rooster Cogburn).

Opening the same day as True Grit is another movie in which a tween girl has a movie star at her personal disposal—although Somewhere is far more ambivalent about the rewards of such an arrangement. In Sofia Coppola’s film, the trappings of Johnny Marco’s (Stephen Dorff) celebrity-room service, foreign sojourns, helicopter rides-are thrilling but also alienating for his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). (The babes, meanwhile, are unfairly matched rivals.) Shuttled between flashbulb-blinded parents, Cleo’s a far cry from the self-sufficient Mattie, who dictates her own terms for living arrangements and relationships: father-figure Rooster ends up buried in her family plot. (Not entirely dissimilarly, Somewhere ends on a moment of emotional reciprocity, itself a plaintive bit of wish-fulfilment.) You start to remember why boys and girls might be receptive to movies which confirm their feeling of being older than the world treats them. And wonder how much it ever changes.