A day in the life of five children whose mother has left them to fend for themselves.
God Bless The Child (SXSW Review)
It’s dawn on a random summer morning in California and young boy Eli (Elias Graham) is content to finally stick the landing on the front-flip he’s been trying on the rickety trampoline in his back yard. When he hears his mother get into her car, he races to the front of the house to let her know they need milk; mom ignores Eli and speeds away. This is the beginning of a day when Eli and his three younger brothers Arri, Ezra, and Jonah (all Grahams also), are cared for by their eldest sibling, 13-year-old sister Harper (Graham). Their day consists of so many things children do, but as the hours pass, mom is unresponsive to Harper’s phone calls.
Making its world premier at SXSW, God Bless the Child, from first-time directors Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, is a surprisingly compelling look at a (summer) day in the life of a quintet of children left to their own devices. I say “surprisingly” from the perspective that the film is 92 minutes of children spending their day as children do: playing, fighting, eating popsicles, washing the dogs, going on neighborhood adventures, and so on. Presented in a style that suggests it’s a documentary (it’s not), the film has almost no plot to speak of, and the kids’ dialogue throughout seems mostly unscripted. This doesn’t sound compelling. And yet.
There is something incredibly appealing about how genuine this film is. In the wake of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which focuses on the life of one middle-class white kid over the course of a dozen years, God Bless the Child is refreshingly uncontrived. Its subjects are not one but five, they are of ethnic or mixed heritage, they are poor, and their single-day microcosm gets a thorough examination. There is no parental drama as there is in Boyhood because the parents (both the mother and at least two different fathers) are absentee. Call it “Childhood.”
The film is also an interesting study in the consequences of absentee parents. Despite mom’s dramatic exit on this particular day, it is clear these kids, who don’t blink at being home alone all day, have lived this existence every day and for a long time. These repeated experiences are shaping them. Of particular note are the two oldest, Harper and Eli.
As the oldest, Harper is forced to abandon her role of sister (along with any teenage dreams she might have) and play mother to four boys, including a 1-year-old. It’s an enormous responsibility, but Harper wearily shuffles through the day caring for the boys like a mother three times her age. It’s sad, but with what appears to be stifled ambition and a hopeless situation, Harper’s future, at only 13, seems bleak.
Next oldest is Eli, who is clearly the Alpha Male. He holds that title not only by right of age, but because of his assertive — at times angry — approach to his younger brothers and conflict resolution. He isn’t violent with them, but I would add “yet” to that statement because he shows flashes of a temper that his parents aren’t around to see and that his sister, despite her best efforts, is too young to properly manage.
The film struggles, though, when it attempts to manufacture drama. There are a few instances — one involving a potential “stranger danger” situation and another involving a chance meeting with Harper’s classmate/romantic interest — that feel forced and have no sense of authenticity to them. It’s understandable to want to include moments like these in a story like this, but in these cases, it’s to the film’s detriment.
Also working against the film, oddly enough, is the mother’s absence. Her hurried departure and unwillingness to return Harper’s calls aside, there is never any real sense of abandonment, nor is there any sense the kids are in peril. Just as it feels like nothing more than curious behavior to the viewer, so too does it feel like only curious behavior to Harper — and if Harper isn’t panicked, the viewer isn’t either.
As someone whose youth was closer to that of the story found in Boyhood, there is nothing I can personally connect with in God Bless the Child. Still, I found it to be an incredibly engaging film that made me care for its characters without forcing it.