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Hollywood on the Offensive

Child abuse hits the silver screen.

11:00 PM, Mar 3, 2008 • By KEVIN KUSINITZ
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IT WAS A BOLD move. The movie industry, long condemned as purveyors of every conceivable offense for the sake of a buck, was taking a stand. We will not abide by this rot anymore, it said, pounding a fist into its hand; the time has come to take the high ground, no matter the financial consequence. And with that, it was announced . . . James Bond would no longer smoke cigarettes. Who says show biz has no morals?

With this dust-up settled, we can nosh on the veggie platter while enjoying the latest trend in movie entertainment: child abuse. Two movies at last year's Sundance Film Festival got the ball rolling. The first, Hounddog, starred Dakota Fanning as a 12 year-old raped by an Elvis Presley fan in Alabama during the 1950s. Being raped would mess up any girl's mind, and Ms. Fanning's character is no different. However, unlike some adolescents, who might emotionally withdraw from the world, Hounddog's heroine, according to movie critic Lou Lumenick, "forces two children to strip at gunpoint and embrace as she wraps a snake around them." Kids these days, hunh?

OK, been there, done that. What about something really challenging, like the second pride of Sundance, An American Crime starring Catherine Keener and Ellen Page. Again, let's turn to Mr. Lumenick:

["An American Crime"] is based on a 1965 Indiana murder case that shocked the nation. Keener's single mother of six took in two teenage boarders--and tied up one of them, played by Page, in the basement.
All manner of abuses are visited upon the teenager by this frightening woman, her children and their friends--as the victim's sister, who has polio, watches in horror. The injuries include multiple cigarette burns, scalding baths and violation with a soda bottle.

Now I'm all for artistic freedom, but for the love of Goddard, is there anyone out there who finds these movies enticing? If so, remind me to call a cop next time I see you hanging around my kid's school. By the way, if the name Ellen Page sounds familiar, it's because she was Oscar-nominated this year for her lead role in the zany teen-pregnancy comedy Juno. Because, as many of you parents will attest, there's nothing funnier than when your 17 year-old daughter gets knocked up.

Whither this trend? Either moviemakers have decided they've gone as far as they could go with adults, or this is as good as any way to persuade kids to "accept their sexuality." And if you think I'm kidding, let's listen to Deborah Kampmeier, the director of Hounddog: "There were so many stories I need to tell in Hounddog. About motherlessness, the cycle of abuse, the triumph of this girl's spirit and the power of female sexuality."

Boy, she could fertilize enough crops to feed Minnesota for a year with stuff like that. Another writer/director, Alan Ball, essentially makes the same point in this year's Towelhead, featuring a 13 year-old Arab-American girl raped by--but of course!--an American reservist. The difference here is that Towelhead is described as a "dark comedy." You're holding your sides, I'm sure.

Hounddog, An American Crime and Towelhead are part and parcel of the movie industry's current favorite character, the sensitive pedophile. Kevin Bacon (The Woodsman) and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) are just two of the more prominent actors tackling this visionary role. (Haley was Oscar-nominated, for heaven's sake, so it must be a good thing.) We're supposed to sympathize with their characters because . . . um, I don't know. I have a feeling, however, if these "heroes" were Catholic priests, the make-up department would've been working triple-overtime to make horns grow out of their heads.

It's a question asked time and again: when it comes to movies, is anything really offensive? Well, just try pitching a script that portrayed Sacco & Vanzetti as a couple of two-bit, bomb-throwing thugs. Or the Rosenbergs as spies for the Soviet Union. I think you'll find your answer pretty quickly.

I witnessed this kind of thing first-hand. Shortly after the 2000 election, my then-writing partner and I were meeting with a producer interested in one of our screenplays. While unwinding over drinks, the producer started moaning how Bush "stole the election" and how Al Gore was the real winner. He put down his drink and, looking at us with steely eyes, asked, "We're on the same page here--right?"

"Oh, sure," I lied in a what-kind-of-fool-do-you-take-me-for way, "of course." Because it was clear by the tone of his voice that had I replied, "Well no, I don't agree, and what does this have to do with our back-end deal?", the meeting would have ended post-haste. Worse, I would have been expected to pick up the tab.