Directed by Alex Winter, a former child actor himself, SHOWBIZ KIDS is an earnest and compassionate look at growing up within the media machine that is Hollywood. It’s not particularly revealing, and it pulls punches more than happily, but it is a well timed reminder that the people entertaining you sometimes don’t have a choice in performing for an audience of millions.
Gathering together an assortment of former child actors, some now retired, others who have segued into careers of varying success, SHOWBIZ KIDS lets them do the talking for a change. There is no narration and visual cues are kept to a minimum. It’s this minimalist choice that is for the benefit of the final product, as the people involved are far more interesting than anything else. But it’s also one that is underutilized to the point it makes the entire documentary feel toothless. Like there was more to be said that is desperate to get out and nobody wants to risk seeing what it might unearth.
Running alongside the testimonies is a half-baked portion involving a hopeful child actor and his family searching for a chance to be booked on a TV pilot. We follow closely as the mother insists on being “hands off”, though one simply needs to ask just how independent a ten year old really is to doubt that claim. Their interviews feel distant and hokey as is expected, but Winters doesn’t push any of his subjects to actually answer difficult questions relating to the inherently degrading act of forcing a child to work in an industry run by adults.
This extends to the former child actors themselves. Some, like Evan Rachel Wood and Milla Jovovich, openly speak of their sexualization at a far too young age and express their concern at the rampant abuse running behind the scenes. But neither is pushed or asked to elaborate, even as Wood claims to have witnessed a pedophile being awarded a prestigious award at a highly public ceremony. A portion of the interview veers into the uncomfortable as Wood flat out states that everyone accepts the abuse because they know speaking out would most likely kill their career. Yet none of this is followed up, leaving more questions than answers.
If everyone knows that these things happen and nobody does anything, that means everyone involved – including those now speaking out – are guilty by omission. Instead Wood giggles at the realization and the documentary moves on.
These hints and insinuations are baked deep into the DNA of the slim 90 minute runtime. There are stolen glances, nervous laughs, and timid body language when certain topics are broached. Interview subjects will tense up, while others look away as they struggle through their lines. It’s these moments that reveal deeper and darker truths about the dream factory out west, but they’re aggravatingly left unexplored and thin.
One particularly depressing moment sees Jada Pinkett Smith speak for her children about how their experiences growing up in the industry have been more protected. Only for it to be followed by her daughter, Willow, speaking up about cutting herself in response to unexpected fame. The segment only lasts for about a minute and it takes a while longer to register, but Willow’s admission comes from a pre-recorded reality talk show. Meaning that even her suffering isn’t private — it’s part of a well organized machine designed to direct the flow of PR.
Again, Winters lets this go.
This happens so often it becomes a theme. Winters is presented with an interesting (if horrifying) line of questioning, and he instead points the camera the other way, hoping to catch a glimpse of something equally distressing, but more palatable for a wider audience. There’s a sense which often creeps in that nobody has come out of their childhood career unharmed, that everyone interviewed – old or young – are damaged in some way. But instead of pointing fingers, or even asking the important questions, Winters sets a foundation and leaves it empty. The result is a finely built road paved with good intentions that ultimately leads to a wall.
Some, like Mara Wilson and Henry Thomas speak eloquently and openly about their experiences, while Todd Bridges opens up most of the entire crowd to tell of his spiral into drugs and self-harm at the end of his fame. Each of them could have been the subject all on their own. Now they’re left scrambling for air time in a film so scattershot it can’t possibly pick up all the pieces in such a short feature.
Nobody is asking for a documentary to provide a fix for a broken and insidious industry. It’s already good that a reminder such as this exists so that those who haven’t been paying attention will be caught up. But what is left unsaid says more about the severity of the situation than anything else.
Winters, and many of the others involved, still have careers in Hollywood. They might not be as big as they once were, but it’s still there. Meaning that as Rachel Wood says: “there’s always someone waiting to take over being abused from you.”
Meaning that as long as the option is there, we will never get a full picture. And that’s the scariest part of them all.