To continue my series of Top Five Influential Female Characters in Film, I now present another for your reading pleasure, where I will be focusing on female children in cinema. The characters I have chosen, range from those who manage to retain their innocence, to those who end up losing their innocence completely.
Before I begin, I would like to bring your attention to something stated by one of my favourite filmmakers, Terry Gilliam, from his prologue to his film, “Tideland”: “Many of you are not going to like this film. Many of you, luckily, are going to love it. And then, there are many of you who aren’t going to know what to think when the film finishes, but hopefully, you’ll be thinking.”
I feel I can make a strong connection between his words and my choice of characters; some will like and agree with them, some will not. Some may not even understand why I have chosen the characters I have. But, with all of this in mind, I invite you get comfortable, read on and whether you enjoy this article or not, I hope at least, that it will make you think.
The first character I want to talk about, is Mathilda, from “Léon: The Professional” (1994). This is a child who has had to grow up very quickly, out of circumstance. With her verbally and physically abusive father and half-sister and her selfish, coarse prostitute stepmother, she has had to act as both a sister and a parental figure to her four-year-old brother, whom she loves fiercely, as is evident in her grief over his murder and her desire for revenge. To those around her, her tough way of talking is often interpreted as a mere front, to make her seem stronger than she appears. They couldn’t be more wrong; Mathilda does not simply talk tough – she genuinely is tough.
In addition, she is also quick-thinking and bright. This is particularly brought to light, when she returns from grocery shopping, to find that her family had been gunned down by corrupt DEA agents. Even at the age of twelve, because of her exposure to such situations, Mathilda had developed enough sense and awareness, to understand that if she were to exude distress at the sight of her massacred family, she would be putting herself in certain danger and most likely follow the fate of her family. She maintains composure, keeps her head down and walks straight past the scene, to knock on Léon’s door.
Mathilda is, first and foremost, a survivor, with a darkened view of the world and those who inhabit it. Despite all this, she still exhibits rare moments of acting the age she really is, which adds to her charm and brings out the warmth in not only her personality, but also in Leon’s. With that in mind, she is also very wilful. Most notably, when she declares to Leon that she thinks she’s falling in love with him and when she refers to him as her lover, to the concierge in the motel where she and Léon live, for a time, to boot. The fact that she is, essentially, a child, is illustrated perfectly, in her experiencing her first crush, but not being old enough to understand the true meaning and dynamics of romantic love; also, in the sense that by declaring something so shocking to the concierge, she outlined a child’s tendency to act out and say things without realising the implications and with no regard for the consequences.
The second character on my list, is Jeliza-Rose, in “Tideland” (2005). Where do I begin? Jeliza-Rose can, in my opinion, only be described as the epitome of innocence. This is a girl who has endured and experienced some truly horrific things. She is the product of neglectful, junkie parents, for whom she is even made to prepare their drugs for. She has suffered at the hand of verbal and physical abuse. She has withstood abandonment from both parents, upon their deaths from drug overdoses and her resulting bereavement. She has met with the horror of witnessing her father being turned into a piece of taxidermy, potential threats against her livelihood and as if all of that weren’t enough, she becomes a victim of sexual abuse, without being aware that that was what it is, at the hands of Dickens, a mentally disturbed twenty-year-old man.
Jeliza-Rose is the very embodiment of the phrase, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. She is not stupid, however. She is completely aware of the tragedy, the darkness and the danger that surrounds her. So, as a defence mechanism and a means of coping with harsh reality, Jeliza-Rose creates a fantasy world that protects her and parallels everything going on around her. It is in this way that she finds means to justify what is happening, through her childlike logic and her sense of wonder and innocence.
For example, upon her first sexual encounter with Dickens, she begins to refer to him as her husband and frequently declares her love for him, both to herself and to his face. Subconsciously, she understands that by pinning these labels to their encounters, it somehow would justify what they (a child and a mentally deficient man) had done as a loving union, instead something dark and incredibly sinister. It is the levels of innocence involved that makes it so dark; as Gilliam stated in the aforementioned prologue: “If it’s shocking, it’s because it’s innocent”.
Coming in third, is Luli McMullen, from “Hick” (2011). She is very pretty, deeply thoughtful and smart, for her age. Like Mathilda, Luli is a survivor. She is the only character in this article in her teens, but I have included her, because she exhibits a common trait apparent in most girls, after turning thirteen: That upon becoming a teenager, one automatically develops an adult sense of things in life, as well as higher levels of wisdom and intuition, while simultaneously disregarding the fact that in reality, being a child remains to apply to one’s person, as thirteen is still a very young age.
Despite having led a pretty loveless life, with deadbeat, neglectful, alcoholic parents and few friends, Luli still retains hope that she will find love of any kind, elsewhere, be it romantic or parental. However, given the fact that watching numerous films have played a large part in her life, her expectations and hopes of how she will find love and with who, are higher than can be deemed realistic, as such depictions of love are fabrications where nothing can go wrong and no-one is disappointed. Given that her films are her only source of reference to love and relationships, her hopes and expectations manifested from the movies, often put her in the path of danger, particularly when it comes to her judgements of Eddie, the unstable cowboy who at first flatters, charms and pursues her, but then goes on to abduct her, rape her and hold her hostage in a motel room.
Regardless of her age and at times, flawed intuition, Luli does express quite a profound philosophy for life, as is brought to our attention in the final scene of the film, when she declares via inner monologue: “You could shake your knuckles at the sky. You could get mad and say “I don’t got nothing.” You could get stuck. You could grab the past and drag it with you like a bag of rocks. You can grab that new diet with grapefruits and a brand new exerciser and maybe that new washer-dryer set. You can grab and grab and grab, ‘til your fists turn green. You can grab everything you ever wanted. Shake it. Try to make it go boom. Yeah, you can never, ever grab enough.”
The fourth character I would like to bring your attention to, is Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch, in the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Scout, as she prefers to be called, is a charming little urchin and another of my favourite characters of all time, right from the first time I watched this film, aged ten.
She is a tomboy and views being labelled as a girly-girl an incredible slight and a sign of weakness, mostly because the two figures whom she rates most highly in her life, are her brother, Jem and her father, Atticus. She constantly aspires to match their courage, endurance, knowledge and strength of character, by always wanting to appear fearless and tough, but she has her moments of uncertainty and fear; most prominently, when she, Jem and their friend Dell make an attempt to spy on Boo Radley, late one night.
Scout provides situational relief, through her openness to accepting the good in others (especially when meeting Boo for the first time) and through her funny little quirks that make her a delight to watch, for example, her disgruntlement at having to wear “a darn old dress” to school. Scout Finch is one of the two characters in this article to have not been forced to grow up before their time, despite the things she encounters and experiences throughout the story: racism, the cruelty of humanity, the wrongful accusation of rape to a black man, Tom Robinson and how it brings about his death and attempts on her and Jem’s lives, at the hands of Bob Ewell.
Through the narration of her older self, I feel it is made clear that despite her experiences from the ages of six to seven, she does not fully understand them until she has had time to grow older and reflect upon them. As Atticus says to her, upon her asking him a question, concerning why there were people in Maycomb County arguing against his choice to defend Tom Robinson, “Scout, there are some things you’re not old enough to understand, just yet”.
And so, we come to the final character, in my opinion, an incredibly special one: Olive Hoover, in “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006). Olive is the great, shining hope of the Hoover family. She is the one thing in all of their lives which is always sweet and always genuine in her emotions, her actions and her words. In such a dysfunctional family, made up by a bankrupt, delusional father, a mother who is just trying to make things work, while desperately curbing her exasperations and potentially on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a grandfather with loose morals, a filthy-mind and a heroin addiction, a brother who refuses to speak and lives in a cloud of cynicism, anger and a general dislike of his family and an uncle, recuperating after an attempted suicide.
Olive is the glue that holds them all together. She is untouched by their flaws, loving each of them unconditionally and acting as a soothing balm to the rough wounds of their psyches. She is a saviour to each of them, in different ways: She inspires her father and uncle, reminding them that they don’t have to receive such high levels of praise and recognition, to be important, by simply being happy to be herself and not caring what anyone else thinks. She gives her mother hope that there is, at least, one person in their family that isn’t a screw-up, desperately unhappy, or dissatisfied with their life. She ignites a sense of unconditional love in her brother at one of the darkest points in his life, by simply reaching out and comforting him, without saying a word. And she gives her grandfather a final sense of meaning in his life and something to show for it, in the end.
To close, I feel compelled to outline the fact that, for me, what really sets these five children apart from any others I could have chosen, is that none of them are defined by their parents or other members of their families. They are their own people, in their own right. What makes them influential, is that they define themselves.
Written by Aifric O’Neill