Saturday, September 19, 2020

Mindful Movies

What does a pandemic mean to a four-year-old? Our daughter has been really great about mask wearing and stepping aside so strangers can pass to avoid “germies” while on a walk, but she still questions whether or not she needs to wash her hands after coming back from a journey outside. It’s a whole new world that’s difficult to navigate and can sometimes be quite frustrating. Of course tantrums aren’t great, but given the circumstances, can you really blame kids? Emotions can be messy. Doubly so during a pandemic. But they are all valid.

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Many children’s films begin with disruption. Usually this takes the form of a parent’s death which leaves the protagonist to face the world alone until a plucky band of new friends come along and help vanquish the bad guy/restore some form of normalcy. It’s a comforting arc, but not exactly relevant to our present times because it centers on a goal. There’s an end. What about when there doesn’t seem to be an eminent end and there’s certainly little you can do to bring that end about? What about when the only thing you (sort of) have control over is yourself? 

The two family-friendly films I see as most relevant to the era of Covid are Inside Out and Where the Wild Things Are. Both films center on kids at the edge of adolescence, who have had their lives uprooted, decide to run away, and who gradually come to accept the fact that it is OK to embrace the full spectrum of human emotion. Oh, and they both do this via fantastical manifestations of their inner turmoil. Sure the Pixar film is much more literal in its allegory (with characters named after emotions) but the only major difference between the two is that Inside Out uses the character of Joy as a proxy for its protagonist’s journey of acceptance.

While common sense says that the literal cartoon would be more ideal for a younger child (rather than the movie with monsters) I actually found the inverse to be true. The indirectness of Wild Things’ narrative can work better for young kids as they are still very in tune with their intuition. They can feel their way through the film. They become Max observing these Wild Things and their emotional tantrums. They can sense the parallels between Max's behavior and that of the Wild Things. By contrast, the literalism of Inside Out is perfect for an older child who is getting better at putting their feelings into words.

Of course you shouldn’t expect your child to have some sort of grand revelation at the end or either film. They’ll probably be too caught up in the fantastical stuff any way. But these films will certainly start laying some groundwork and maybe spark some interesting car or dinner table conversations. No matter what, you and your child will have watched two very enjoyable films and will certainly have felt some feelings. 

The world is filled with ways to distract ourselves and escape from this never-ending marathon of days, but when it comes to working through some things or when you flat-out need to purge some emotion in a safe manner, regardless of age, the movies simply cannot be beat!

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