Photo: Warner Bros.; Criterion Collection; Paramount Pictures
This weekend, as you search for a movie to watch, you can either go see Ender’s Game or stay home and pick one of approximately 14 billion options available on streaming over a variety of services, be it Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, On Demand, or other sites. Every Friday, Vulture tries to make life easier by narrowing it down to a handful of heartily recommended options. This week, we feature an eighties sci-fi adventure, a French New Wave classic, and two kid-centric films that will scare the hell out of you.
Lord of the Flies
We know there are vicious children out there — have you watched Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef Junior lately? — but nothing quite compares to the English schoolboys at the center of Lord of the Flies. The 1963 film, based on William Golding’s seminal novel, is a stark translation, in which ferocity bubbles over in the most realistic possible fashion. Peter Brook, a theater director whose filmography consisted mainly of play adaptations, approaches the film in a decidedly improvisational manner. As Jack transforms into a tyrant, Ralph plays peacekeeper, and Piggy philosophizes the savage situation, Brook finds a way to make it all sound like dialogue spoken by actual children, not kid actors. It’s hard to imagine today’s child-labor laws enabling Brook to get away with what he did on Lord of the Flies in a contemporary setting. Savor this raw masterpiece. (Available on Hulu)
For kids who grew up building LEGO towers, tinkering with electronics, and constructing imagination-fueled inventions, Explorers was a dream come true. Joe Dante’s follow-up to Gremlins was infamously rushed into production and out of the editing room, and yet it captures the inquisitive nature of young people so precisely, so whimsically, there’s no way the director could have found more nuance. Explorers is like a bookish Goonies. River Phoenix plays Wolfgang, a boy genius who invents a computer capable of manifesting his dreams. Using the device, Wolfgang and his two friends, Darren and Ben (Ethan Hawke), turn an old Tilt-a-Whirl into a spaceship. Logic is left at the door — whatever these kids put their minds to, they achieve. Eventually, the trio run into the wackiest aliens ever committed to film, suggesting that the movie may actually have been adapted from the doodles of a 9-year-old. (Available on Netflix)
Kids love the idea of being terrified (OK, most kids), and in the nineties, Hollywood still produced scary movies to indulge this curiosity. The Witches is like a family-friendly Exorcist. The atmosphere is pure Roald Dahl (known for his children’s books, but author of the most twisted short stories of all time) and the film conjures imagery tapping directly into the nightmares of kids. Director Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth) and the Jim Henson Company set the stage with Angelica Huston’s craggy, hairless Grand High Witch, one of many purple-eyed sorceresses who roam the world, poisoning children with chocolate bars. Bravery overcomes innocence, even when Luke, the young hero facing off against a convention of wicked women, is turned into a mouse and his performance is handled by Henson’s people. Viewing The Witches as an adult makes us feel like a kid again, worried that a monster may pop out from under the bed… and kind of hoping it does. (Available on Amazon Prime, Redbox Instant)
The 400 Blows
Culling from his own childhood memories, French New Wave godfather François Truffaut sheds light on the disheartening side of childhood — a frustrating period of chaos, misunderstanding, and punishment. Truffaut’s proxy Antoine Doinel, a character he would revisit in four more films over 20 years, is a typical 12-year-old: diligent, sharp, and occasionally naughty. But his parents think he’s pesky, while his teacher sees him as a poison to the classroom. Antoine is continually battered by society, and young Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance evokes that frightening perspective. Children aren’t lesser beings, nor are they mature adults. But, as is all-too-common even today, no one in Antoine’s world can figure that out. Truffaut finds hope in his portrait of one person’s early years, while never diluting the truth. Being a kid can suck. (Available on Hulu)