10 great films about childhood

With an unforgettable child performance at its centre, the 1976 classic Cría cuervos is one of the most complex, mysterious visions of childhood on film. To mark its release on DVD/Blu-ray for the first time in the UK, we pick out 10 more great films about children.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Cría cuervos (1976)

Cría cuervos (1976)

Spanish actor Ana Torrent has a significant place in film history – as a child, wide-eyed yet darkly enigmatic, she featured in two films which count among the most indelible evocations of childhood ever put on celluloid.

At seven years old, in Victor Erice’s bewitching The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), she played the emotionally withdrawn youngest daughter of a Castilian family who becomes fascinated, even possessed, by Boris Karloff’s monster after seeing a screening of the 1931 version of Frankenstein.

Then, three years later, in Cría cuervos (‘Raise Ravens’, 1976), Carlos Saura cast her as another haunted child, Ana, an eight-year-old dealing with the death of her mother. A world away from the cute moppets and sentimental visions of childhood in many Hollywood films, such as Pollyanna (1960), Saura’s film recognises a tender youth grappling with trauma and loss, and beset with strange thoughts and feelings.

Like his countryman Luis Buñuel, Saura intertwines fantasy and reality in his film, never overtly signalling when one becomes the other. For Ana, who comes to believe she’s poisoned her philandering father, the flights of her fancy and each dark turn of her imagination are as palpable as the bricks and mortar in her neighbourhood or the furniture in her gloomy, bourgeois home.

Inquisitive, petulant, sad, playful, young Ana is a captivating presence, like one of those peculiar, complicated kids that we meet in the real world rather than an idealised picture of sweetness and light.

As Cría cuervos is released as a BFI Dual Format (DVD/Blu-ray) edition, we nominate 10 more great cinematic depictions of childhood from around the world. Full of the joys but also challenges of youth, these are films about childhood rather than children’s films – each shows how fate, friendships, uncertainty and the mysteries of the adult world shape and colour our pre-teen years. 

I Was Born But… (1932)

Director Yasujiro Ozu

Made near the end of the silent era in Japan, Yasujiro Ozu’s 1932 film I Was Born But… takes place in suburban Tokyo, where the Yoshi family has just moved with their two young sons, Keiji and Ryoichi (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara). New kids on the block, Keiji and Ryoichi immediately fall foul of the local bullies, playing truant to avoid their new nemeses.

Proud of their salaryman father, the two brothers later see a home movie of him with his colleagues, and realise the dad they idolise is actually a doormat to his peers. Tantrums follow, Ozu pinpointing – with unerring charm and a great deal of humour – that awful moment when a young child realises their parents aren’t the Goliaths they thought they were. All the boisterous rough-and-tumble of boyhood is here, mapped without recourse to sentimentality or cutesiness. Small wonder that, for contemporary child-centred films like So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain (2008) and Hirokazu Koreeda’s I Wish (2011), Ozu’s gem remains a touchstone.

Pather Panchali (1955)

Director Satyajit Ray

The story goes that Jean Renoir was in Calcutta in the late 1940s preparing for the shoot of his India-set family drama The River (released in 1951), when Bengali would-be filmmaker Satyajit Ray found his way into the hotel where Renoir was staying to seek the great French director’s counsel.

Inspired by realist postwar Italian films like Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948), Ray had his debut feature all planned out in his head and with some encouragement from Renoir, he began production – on a shoestring budget – on Pather Panchali, an adaptation of a 1929 novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. It was the first part in what became known as the Apu trilogy, charting the growing pains of a young boy in rural Bengal and, in Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), his maturation and move to the big city. Lyrical and sensitively observed, Pather Panchali documents the hardships of peasant life and the sadnesses of time passing, but doesn’t stint on the wonders and excitement of youthful discovery. In one exuberant scene, Apu (Subir Banerjee) and his sister dash excitedly through a paddy field to catch a glimpse of a passing train.

L’Enfance-nue (1968)

Director Maurice Pialat

Coming a little after the groundbreaking debut films by his contemporaries in the French New Wave, Maurice Pialat’s first film is a fierce, bruising account of a young foster child, François (Michel Terrazon), being passed from one home to another in the drab suburbs of northern France. Produced by François Truffaut, the director of Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959), who surely recognised a kindred tale of errant youth, L’Enfance-nue (‘Naked Childhood’) applies acid where many films about childhood prefer sugar. Though François’s situation is desperate, Pialat refuses to tug at the heartstrings, painting the 10-year-old troublemaker as tough, sometimes cruel, and hardened by his wretched plight. Even Truffaut’s classic starts to look indulgently lyrical next to Pialat’s unflinching portrait of a boy on society’s margins.

Later on, the director turned the same steely eye to teens facing an uncertain future in Passe ton bac d’abord (1978) and the libidinous flush of puberty in À nos amours (1983) – completing a trio of sorts that makes Pialat one of cinema’s great chroniclers of youth.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Director Victor Erice

Notice how the cinema itself plays a part in so many of the films on this list – there’s the pivotal screening of a home movie in Ozu’s I Was Born But…; the Charlie Chaplin film night at the boarding school in Au revoir les enfants; even the proto-cinematic magic lantern show in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Time and again in films about childhood, moving images are seen to capture impressionable imaginations in their grip.

In The Spirit of the Beehive, when a travelling projectionist turns up in a Castilian town at the end of the Spanish Civil War, a screening of the 1931 horror film Frankenstein has a seismic impact on six-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent). Spooked by her older sister, who tells her she can summon the spirit of the monster by calling him, she comes to believe that a fugitive soldier camping in a nearby barn may be Frankenstein’s creation come to life. Full of spellbinding imagery, Victor Erice’s debut doubles as an allegory on the Franco dictatorship and one of cinema’s most poignant dramatisations of an introverted child’s wide-eyed wonder and terror.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Director Ingmar Bergman

After decades mapping the emotional and psychological complexities of modern adult life, Scandinavian auteur Ingmar Bergman returned to his own childhood for inspiration for this 1982 family drama. Made as a five-hour serial for Swedish television (and released in cinemas in a shorter, three-hour cut), it’s the story of a brother and sister growing up in Uppsala in the early 1900s. An opulent period film, Fanny and Alexander finds Bergman in a mood of rare warmth and nostalgia, recalling the boyhood joys of a toy theatre, a magic lantern show and a festive banquet.

This being a Bergman film, young Alexander (Bertil Guve) is also already pushing at the boundaries of his own spiritual belief, testing God and searching for some clue of his existence. A quarter of a century after The Seventh Seal (1957), the Grim Reaper makes another (brief) appearance – just one of the eerie, magical touches that suggest how, pre-adulthood, imagination and reality are so interwoven.

Au revoir les enfants (1987)

Director Louis Malle

As with many of the best films about childhood, Louis Malle drew on his own life and experience for this acclaimed wartime drama about boys at a Roman Catholic school during the French Occupation. In the winter of 1943-44, a new boy, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), arrives at the school and arouses first the envy then the curiosity of young Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who begins to realise that ‘Jean’ is Jewish and being hidden at the school to avoid capture by the Nazis.

Apart from the occasional sounding of an air-raid siren, the war itself seems to be taking place somewhere far off, the political backdrop to a picture of boarding-school life replete with the usual pranks, bullying and sexual frustrations. But, suddenly, the gravity of the German oppression, and its devastating consequences for the young characters, becomes all too clear. Malle’s is a heartbreaking film about innocence and betrayal, and about the moment of realisation that each of us has to live with our own actions.

Hope and Glory (1987)

Director John Boorman

The late 1980s saw a number of evocative films about children during the second world war. Like Au revoir les enfants and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s memoir Empire of the Sun (1987), John Boorman’s Hope and Glory is drawn from actual experience – in this case Boorman’s own, as a boy growing up in London during the Blitz.

The terror and destruction of German bombing raids over the capital are keenly felt, but for 10-year-old Bill (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) they are also a source of fascination, excitement, even beauty. What’s more, the shelled hulls of houses provide him and his friends with an immense, ever-changing playground, the face of London’s suburbs morphing after each strike. “The great skill of the photography”, writes critic David Thomson, “is to suggest domes of blast and glare, pits where buildings have gone and the sky is a mess of searchlights and balloons. The kids are warned to stay in and keep to the shelters, but the light show is too beckoning.”

Celia (1989)

Director Ann Turner

Several of the greatest films about childhood are directorial debuts, with young directors harvesting their own youthful experiences for inspiration. To Pather Panchali, Les Quatre Cents Coups, L’Enfance-nue and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) must be added Celia, Ann Turner’s startling first feature from 1989.

Set in suburban Melbourne in the 1950s, it’s a portrait of a troubled nine-year-old girl (an impressively naturalistic performance from Rebecca Smart) and the terrors that weigh upon her impressionable mind. The fear of communism and a government cull of rabbits haunt her thoughts by day, while the monstrous ‘Hobyahs’ she reads about at school stalk her nightmares – a heady stew of death and paranoia that become increasingly confused and intertwined in Celia’s imagination over one hot Australian summer. Turner never again made anything so resonant, but her debut continues to haunt those who track it down.

The Apple (1998)

Director Samira Makhmalbaf

Children have often taken centre stage in the films of the new Iranian cinema that emerged after the 1979 revolution. Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987) and Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995), about the quixotic misadventures of an eight-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl respectively, are two gems desperately in need of a UK DVD release.

The Apple, from 1998, is at first glance a much darker proposition. The story of two 12-year-old sisters who have been kept confined in their home by their strict religious father and blind mother, who believe exposing their daughters to the outside world will lead to their corruption, it’s a film perched on the line between fact and fiction. Not only is the situation described a real one, but each of the characters in the ‘story’ is played by their real-life counterparts. When social workers force the parents to allow their daughters out into the street, the film documents the two sisters’ tentative first impressions of an outside world that’s so long been denied to them. Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf at the age of only 17, this astonishingly mature first feature combines a swipe at an oppressive society with a joyous ode to awakening senses.

A.I. (2001)

Director Steven Spielberg

Perhaps E.T. (1982) comes to mind first as a great Steven Spielberg film about childhood, but his 2001 science-fiction film A.I. merits an equal place in the canon for its achingly moving depiction of a young child’s desperate yearning for maternal love. In fact, David (Haley Joel Osment, at once creepy and touching) is a robot (‘mecca’) in pint-sized form rather than a real child, but after being programmed to ‘love’ a married couple whose own son is in a coma, the prototype ‘mecca’ develops a deep-seated attachment to his adoptive parents to rival any child’s. When their real son miraculously emerges from his unconsciousness, sibling rivalry between the two ‘brothers’ leads to David being dropped off out in the woods to fend for himself – a nightmarishly resonant dramatisation of parental abandonment.

Though wrapped up as a sentimental, futuristic update of the Pinocchio story, with David convinced that if he can be magically turned into a real boy he will win his mother’s heart back, Spielberg’s film asks profoundly unsettling questions about whether to feel is to be, whether the ability to love makes us human, or whether emotions are themselves a kind of biological programming.

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