Sundance roundup: The kids are not alright
Sundance • Festival films show children wrestling with big problems.
Published: January 26, 2012 05:32PM
Updated: April 5, 2012 11:38PM
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Michael Rainey Jr. plays Woody, who learns some harsh lessons about the world in the drama "LUV." (Photo by Bill Gray | Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Park City • When you’re a kid, notes filmmaker David Zellner, “you have a certain kind of logic for how you handle problems, because you’re so new to this world. You’re being a little scientist, pushing buttons and seeing what directions it goes.”

And when you don’t have any parental supervision — like the main character, a 10-year-old Texas girl named Annie, in Zellner’s drama “Kid-Thing” — it’s that much harder.

Lessons in effective parenting have been few and far between in the movies in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Besides “Kid-Thing,” movies at the festival have shown us:

• A Louisiana 6-year-old enduring her ailing father’s tough love in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

• A derelict father (Paul Dano) trying to connect with his estranged 8-year-old daughter in “For Ellen.”

• A single dad (Mark Webber) struggling to raise a toddler in “The End of Love.”

• An 11-year-old Baltimore kid (Michael Rainey Jr.) along for the ride as his uncle (Common) jumps back into his criminal life in “LUV.”

• Japanese teens dealing with big issues with hardly an adult in sight in “About the Pink Sky.”

There is a parent in “Kid-Thing,” but he’s mostly a nonentity — seen more often sleeping off a bender. It’s never even clear if he’s Annie’s dad, or an uncle, or her absent mom’s old boyfriend.

The parental situation “would partly explain why she is how she is,” said Zellner’s brother, Nathan, the movie’s cinematographer and producer. “She has this incredible freedom to do what she wants.”

That freedom comes at a price. “She doesn’t have anyone pointing her moral compass for her,” David Zellner said.

Hushpuppy, the Louisiana girl at the center of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” doesn’t have that problem. She’s “a moral girl, who believes strongly in right and wrong,” said director Benh Zeitlin at a Q-and-A after a screening of his film.

Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar took as their first inspiration a play Alibar wrote, which borrowed from her own childhood. “I grew up in the woods with a wild man for a father,” Alibar said.

Watching her father get ill, when she was 18 or 19, was devastating. “The sense of losing a parent,” Alibar said, “[is like] the whole universe coming apart.”

Woody, the boy in “LUV,” watches his universe crumble when he sees how his beloved uncle really makes his money – embroiled in the world of drugs and thugs on Baltimore’s meanest streets.

To play Woody, director Sheldon Canlis said he needed “a kid with an old soul.” He found that kid in Rainey, making only his second movie. (The first was filmed in Italy and had him speaking Italian.)

Canlis recalled an instance when Michael Rainey’s soul really showed through in filming. During one particularly emotional scene, Canlis and crew were filming at 5 a.m. and brought Michael onto the set when the child had been sleeping for 90 minutes in a van. Canlis asked Rainey, “Can you be emotionally vulnerable? Can you get there? He said [in a low voice] ‘yes.’ ” And he nailed it.

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Screenings: The kids are not alright

“About a Pink Sky” • Today, 10 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema 4, Park City

“For Ellen” • Today, 11:30 a.m., Library Center Theatre, Park City

“The End of Love” • Today, 8:30 a.m., The MARC, Park City

“Kid-Thing” • Today, 9 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema, Salt Lake City; and Saturday, Jan. 28, 10 a.m., Holiday Village Cinema 4, Park City

“LUV” • Today, 9:45 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City; and Saturday, Jan. 28, 9 a.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City

Note • The last Sundance screening of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was Jan. 26, but the movie was purchased on Tuesday by Fox Searchlight and is expected to be released later this year.