Given that there are so many films associated with children and childhood — from Harry Potter and Peter Pan to last year’s Oscar-nominated Beasts Of The Southern Wild — you might think Cousins has a reasonably easy task on his hands. As is becoming characteristic of the filmmaker, however, Cousins instead focuses primarily on relatively obscure titles from throughout history, from Yasujiro Ozu’s An Inn in Tokyo (1935) right up to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012).
What’s most impressive is not Cousins’ extraordinary frame of reference, however, but his ability to effortlessly draw comparisons between not only the various films, but the behaviours of his niece and nephew too. As they mess around with a marble-run, at first inhibited by the presence of the camera and later incorporating it into their play, Cousins identifies certain nuances and explains how they have been represented onscreen.
The documentary opens with a visit to Vincent Van Gogh’s room in Saint Remy and the observation that “people have often seen a lot in a small thing”. From here he turns his attention to the down-turned face of a child, identifying wariness in Yellow Earth (1984) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), working under headings as diverse as shyness, social class, temper tantrums and performance art. When he exhausts Laura and Ben as subjects, he relocates to the great outdoors for his final few insights, including the importance of dreams and dreaming.
Fascinating and informed, A Story Of Children And Film is a true delight that will most likely inspire you to seek out many of the films featured. In taking on an enormous undertaking and making his documentary so personal, however, Cousins has still only tackled a small number of relevant films. The documentary leaves a lot out — in particular the prevalence of children in the horror genre — and come film’s end it is unclear exactly what Cousins was hoping to achieve.
A Story of Children and Cinema is released on April 4.