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Making Quality Irrelevant: Why to Watch “The Sitter” and “The Descendants”

 

It’s been a busy few weeks in terms of interesting stuff coming to the big screen—The Hunger Games, obviously, the new Morgan Spurlock doc on Comic-Con (which bows tomorrow), and a slew of neat pics at Tribeca that I’ve been fortunate to catch over the last several days.

So forgive me if I’ve forgotten to draw attention to a couple of recent home video releases that, without question, deserve some.

The first, released back on March 13, is The Descendants. An Oscar-winning 2011 film, it’s been written about, and praised, extensively. After checking it out again on DVD I appreciate it a bit more than upon my first viewing, although it still strikes me as director Alexander Payne’s weakest work to date. But my opinions are actually beside the point…

The second, released on March 20, is The Sitter. With only a 22% positive ranking on Rotten Tomatoes, this raunchy comedy, I think it’s safe to say, is one of the worst reviewed films of 2012 thus far. And to be clear, I’m not about to dispute its critics; even the bright spots, such as an appearance by personal fave Sam Rockwell, are dimmed by an overall tiredness in both concept and execution.

Oh, but there I go again with my evaluative opining …

After all, there’s at least one big reason to watch The Sitter—and perhaps even put it on a double-bill with The Descendants. Namely, both films include striking, and strikingly simpatico, representations of young people.

The Sitter, strangely enough, was directed by David Gordon Green, who made what’s arguably one of the finest movies about kids of this past generation, George Washington. Sensitive, innovative, honest—it’s all these and more. His new film, in contrast, reduces the children at its center to grotesque caricatures… but fascinating ones nonetheless. While all three characters are precocious in some skewed way, the most interesting example involves a little girl who shows all the signs of self-objectification at an age that’s far too young and inappropriate. Overall, the film’s exploration of the comedic interplay between the dualities of young/old, child/adult, innocence/experience is an extension of the movie persona of producer and star Jonah Hill… whose work has consistently covered similar ground, from Superbad to last year’s Moneyball to the current hit 21 Jump Street. Alternately irritating and humorous, Hill likes to blur all the standard man-boy distinctions, and so maybe it should come as no surprise that The Sitter forces this theme of age-confusion on its young performers.

The Descendants mines neighboring, if not identical, terrain but does so with “taste,” so we might not even realize it’s doing this. Actually, ascribing good taste to The Descendants is kind of odd in that it often seems self-consciously “edgy.” How else to describe a film that twice features a ten-year-old flipping off an adult, in one instance her own father? And in another scene this same girl is yelled at by her older sister, who says, “Get out of my underwear, you freak!”

So how far are we, really, from the same problem of premature maturation that we see in The Sitter? And is the tonal difference between the films on this count only the result of The Sitter’s humor being much, much broader? In both we’re supposed to find the lack of innocence amusing, although in The Descendants some of that humor stems from George Clooney insisting that his child is still “sweet.”

Of course the girl in The Sitter is equally sweet, it’s just harder for us to see that. Both films, in fact, end with age-appropriateness fully restored. The older daughter in The Descendants, who early on is characterized by her interest in “drugs and older guys,” ends up on the family sofa with her Dad and little sister. The drugs (and drinking) have been replaced by ice cream, all the bad behavior replaced by a screening of March of the Penguins.

Each in their own way, the two films seek to reassure us that the kids are, in fact, all right. Or can be, if adults do the right thing and take responsibility for them.

Still…

  • Is the representation of children as similar in the two films as I’ve made it seem?
  • With respect to The Sitter, is it possible for a serious theme to be addressed in such an exploitative way?
  • More importantly, what does the prevalence of this theme, in these films and others, say about contemporary culture?
  • Do such media messages reflect, or contribute to, the “death of childhood” in our society—or both?
  • And finally, do there exist better examples to examine in terms of contemporary film or television?

Of course neither of these R-rated films is likely to be discussed at length in any type of school setting. And, equally obviously, schools’ gatekeepers of quality media are wise to make sure that “content” such as The Sitter is not acquired or screened for the same kind of young children it depicts.

That said, if we don’t somehow allow the entrance of “bad” products into media literacy education, we’re ignoring a big opportunity to study “media-as-media.” Such products are not only part of the media landscape, but their very status as disposable or unsavory texts permits their embedded values—and the ways those values are shared with more socially-valued works—to go unexamined and, ultimately, unchallenged.

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