Don McKellar, who cowrote, directed, and stars in this movie, also cowrote and starred in one of the best Canadian television series, Twitch City, as well as classic Canadian films like Highway 61 and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and the less-Canadian The Red Violin.
Childstar is McKellar’s take on the US film industry in Canada, centred on, as you might imagine, a child star. Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall) is the titular character, a 12 year old famous for his role in a generic family sitcom (starring Alan Thicke of Growing Pains as the dad). Pompous Taylor lands a role in a movie being shot in Toronto, with a ridiculous plot about the son of the American president taking control after his dad is kidnapped by terrorists. Feeling the pressure of stardom and tasting the debauchery his fame can buy him, Taylor runs away, leading to a frantic search and panic on the set.
The movie offers us glimpses of life on a movie set, complete with inept director, idiotic actor, faded former child star Chip (Brendon Fehr, Roswell), frantic producer (Dave Foley, NewsRadio), and neglectful but manipulative stage mom Suzanne Burns (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female). McKellar plays Rick the driver – actually an experimental filmmaker who begins as Taylor’s chauffeur and ends as his tutor and confidente, while sleeping with his mother.
McKellar’s eccentric dry wit permeates the film, but it isn’t the raucous comedy the plot might suggest. Rick becomes disgusted with the exploitation of the child star as a commodity, by his mother, by the industry, and even by the child himself. I can’t help but cringe at my own hypocrisy that I can’t imagine a film getting away with the sexual themes involving 12-year-old Taylor if the genders were reversed, but his unchildlike demeanour is part of the point – this is a child who has more power than the adults around him.
The despondent has-been Chip represents the end Taylor is heading towards: “When they hit puberty, we chew them up and spit them out; they spend the rest of their lives entertaining us in the tabloids.” This point is hammered home at the end, but it’s a fun and intriguing journey to get to the too pedantic final scenes.
Despite the title, Rick is the driver of the film in more than just his job title. It’s his journey we follow more than Taylor’s predictable and sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing storyline. “The film has quite an unusual structure. Taylor is certainly the chief focus and in many senses ‘the star,’ but he is not really the protagonist, exactly,” explained McKellar during an online Q&A at the First Weekend Club website. “In some senses he’s the antagonist.”
Childstar isn’t for children. It’s a biting look at the egos and machinations behind the scenes, and plays like a satire of the movie industry. McKellar, however, claims it’s more fact than hyperbole. “Every crew member, agent and actor I talked to seemed to have a ready child star nightmare at hand. I compressed them all into Taylor,” he said. “At least one major nameless ex-child star gave his stamp of approval to the script. I don’t think the film is an exaggeration in the slightest.”
There is an uneven tone to the film, from sly, dry wit, to over-the-top cartoonish scenes, to poignancy, but it blends into an entertaining if ultimately unsatisfying mix. “I was really trying with this script to make things unpredictable,” McKellar said. “That was one of my chief goals. Not to abandon conventional movie storytelling, though, but rather to toy with it, set up certain conventions and twist them around. Sometimes to play it like the movies – because that’s the world these characters live in – but sometimes make it surprisingly real or true.”
The acting provides a similarly unpredictable range with fairly predictable characters. McKellar and Leigh draw on genuine emotion as well as quick wit to make their potentially unlikeable characters compelling, Rendall effectively shows the confused kid inside the privileged jackass, and Foley, Thicke, Gil Bellows as a slimy agent, Eric Stolz as Taylor’s dad, and others provide over-the-top comedy. I don’t know if the film earned any money from product placement, but if so, Coke might want their money back. The villainous agent played by Bellows is constantly, conspicuously holding a can of Diet Coke – it functions as the hipper, more commercial equivalent of a black hat and twirled moustache.
The DVD contains one of the best “making of” featurettes I’ve seen recently. It follows McKellar during and after the shoot, and interviews the producers and actors behind Childstar. This is no PR puff piece – it focuses on McKellar’s creative process and the intricacies of shooting within the contraints of budget, time, and weather. There is apparently a director’s commentary track under Set Up rather than Bonus Features (why, DVD producers, why?!). Unfortunately I had already returned the disc before discovering that, but I’ll likely put this in my DVD rental subscription again to check it out, since McKellar proves in the featurette that he’s an entertaining and informative commentator.
(Cross posted to Blogcritics.)
- Quotes are from the First Weekend Club discussion, when McKellar graciously answered every question asked of him during their first DVD Club Q&A on October 7. See the First Weekend Club forum.
- Childstar official site, which contains McKellar’s explanation of the inspiration for the movie, cast bios, and more.
– Don McKellar