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Dark of the Matinée: That Boy's Life // Super 8

Five white kids stand in a field around a camera. They are making a Super 8 movie. Three of them, all boys, operate the camera equipment while the other two, a boy and a girl, stand nearby in old-timey costumes

Super 8 is one of the few movies I was genuinely excited to see this summer, and for the most part, it lived up to the hype. It's a consummate summer movie if there ever was one: it's got action, romance, aliens, explosions, and even takes place during summer. It's not a groundbreaking or exceptional movie by any means, but I felt fully engaged with it and enchanted by it while I watched, comforted by the familiar rhythm of cliché parent-child relationships and minor character comic relief, and viscerally thrilled by the reptilian pleasure of watching stuff blow up.

The movie follows Joe (Joel Courtney, a twelve-year-old Patrick Fugit doppelganger, with a little button nose and Bieber hair), a tween living in small-town America in 1979, before the word "tween" existed. His mother recently died in a steel mill accident; his father is a distant, macho law enforcement officer who is too much of a he-man to know how to express love for his only child. Joel spends his days and nights painting model trains, doing monster makeup for his friend Charles' (Riley Griffiths) super 8 short films and constantly carrying around a Significant Object (a locket necklace with a portrait inside, natch) in remembrance of his mother. While shooting at a train station one night with Alice (Elle Fanning), Joe and friends witness a mysterious train wreck that triggers a government cover-up and threatens the town.

It's a by-the-numbers blockbuster, but one with a key element that's missing from most of the big-budget bloatfests crowding each other for space on the marquee every summer: heart. Heart is hard to manufacture, harder to define and subjective to boot; I say heart, you say embarrassingly sentimental emotional manipulation. Most of the explosions and dramatic action take place in the second half of the film, but I preferred the first half, which which devotes most of its attention to the kids and their world, sans adults. The kids are entertaining and sympathetic; their problems and conflicts feel real. This is the part of the movie that has heart. It's reminiscent of Stand By Me or The Goonies, especially because it's set in the still-recent past. All these movies are about children but made for an audience that includes adults, and are about young boys working together to go on that ol' hero's journey and eventually attain some kind of maturity. These are movies that could all appropriately be titled, as Spielberg's E.T. was code-titled during its production, A Boy's Life. I can't think of any analogous movies about girls because young girls, in general, don't do things in movies. They certainly don't have the supportive, creative groups of friends or sense of companionship that Boy's Life movies do. I can't accept movies about Boy's Lives as reflective of girls' lives, because they're not.

Of course, developing characters is an artistic choice, and I don't want to criticize Super 8 or other Boy's Life movies for being about boys instead of girls. What should come under criticism, however, is a film industry that doesn't believe that a movie (especially a summer movie) with more than one token female lead, if that, can be popular or profitable. Super 8 is no exception in that category. The four female characters in the film are [major spoilers]:

- Elizabeth Lamb (Catrina Balfe), Joe's mom, an untouchable, immaculate beautiful angel martyr. The movie opens with her tragic death in a steel mill accident and she is seen only in old home movies, smiling beatifically and caressing baby Joel like a danged Madonna. The amount of sheer gall needed to create such a blatantly idealized character and expect audiences to find her convincing or emotionally affecting is kind of staggering. The emotional pull of her death feels false, like a shoved-in plot device, because it is. Weirdly, there is a scene in the film where Charles explains to Joe that they need to insert a female character into their script halfway through production of their homemade zombie flick in order to make the male hero's conflict more emotionally hard-hitting, a technique he learned from a Super 8 Filmmaker magazine. It's pretty meta.

- Alice (Elle Fanning), a capable and talented girl who nevertheless serves primarily as a romantic interest for Joe. Her mother is AWOL; she ran off, presumably sick of living with Alice's father, the town drunk. Alice befriends the boys' club but eventually gets carried off, Fay Wray-like, by the alien before the majority of the action starts, and lays comatose in his lair until Joe rescues her. Derp.

- Mrs. Kaznyk (Jessica Tuck), Charles's mother, a minor character who provides maternal support by repeatedly expressing concerns about Joe and Charles but also has to take care of a large family, so ultimately is stretched too thin to provide any kind of significant help or supervision.

- Jen (AJ Michalka), Charles's sister, another minor character. A superficial teenager interested in parties and boys and, uh, girl stuff. Her biggest action is using her sexuality as a bargaining tool to help her brother and his friends out.

a line drawing of a hand reaching for a locketAt times Super 8 feels like a mashup of Steven Spielberg hits: you've got the basically unsupervised kids who have to fend for themselves (E.T., Jurassic Park), an alien who is being hunted obsessively by one guy (Jaws) and the government (E.T.), wreaks havoc and eats people (War of the Worlds) but really just needs a little kindness and is trying to get home (E.T. again). These kids live in a world with virtually no mothers and emotionally distant fathers and yet at the end, Joe and Alice must quite literally let go of their attachment to their mothers (via the Significant Object, SYMBOLISM) and embrace their fathers, who rejected, ignored and generally failed to shiv a git about their kids until the moment they straight-up ran away. No. You don't get the #1 Dad mug for that. The kids made their own way and figured things out in a world without their parents, but at the end we're supposed to act like the parents still matter. This conflict is, I think, where the heart is supposed to come from, but it feels empty.

Again, Super 8 was not a bad movie. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend a summer evening (*cough* Bad Teacher *cough*). It's just frustrating to be given such a fun, gold-tinted, mostly satisfying summer movie that doesn't provide any appealing place for girls.

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Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Yes!

I really enjoyed this post! I very much enjoyed this movie, and I love movies like Stand By Me and The Goonies, but your post touched on something that I'd never really considered. Growing up watching these movies, I always wished I had friends like that and adventures like those, but I never considered that I DID have friends and I DID have adventures, they just weren't portrayed in films because they involved girls. As cheesy as it is, I loved (and probably still would if I watched it again) the movie Now and Then because of the female relationships and conversations (Roberta hating her developing body? Totally relatable to myself and my sisters at the time!). And even though I will continue to enjoy these boy's life movies, I would love to see some more girl's life films too.

Super 8

Great review of this movie. I agree with you that it had heart and I liked your run-down of the four female characters. But, I completely applaud your final claim that "It's just frustrating to be given such a fun, gold-tinted, mostly satisfying summer movie that doesn't provide any appealing place for girls." I also took issue with the use of the word "pussy" in the film which I posted on here: http://www.womanist-musings.com/2011/06/super-8-and-monstrous-pussy.html

Hayao Miyazaki (aka my

Hayao Miyazaki (aka my personal Jebus) actually wrote Spirited Away for his daughter because he felt girls deserved a better story than the ones about boys and clothes that are so popular in Japanese shojo (anime/comic books for girls). Actually, ALL of his movies have great female characters in them and you can be sure MY kids are watchin' em.
Other great movies for girls: Whale Rider, Harriet the Spy.

That being said, yes x10 for your article. When I grow up and am a big time filmmaker, I will make so many coming of age stories about strong girls/a group of kids with all genders represented.

I really enjoyed this movie,

I really enjoyed this movie, but couldn't shake my disappointment in the lack of female characters. Is it that crazy that the group would be of mixed gender? And why couldn't one of the other friends (like the wimpy one that complained a lot) get caught by the monster? Grrrr.

I didn't read the movie the

I didn't read the movie the same way you did, but boy did I enjoy reading this review. Way to bring in references to other movies appropriately and it's definitely an interesting perspective. As for the lack of female characters, as you noted it's not so much a problem with this movie as it is characteristic of "the movies". I don't blame Hollywood because I think they are genuinely reacting to the market, except maybe they can be faulted for a general failure of imagination.

I thought Alice was a good

I thought Alice was a good female character, she has the roughest life of all of the kids-least sentimentalized, was more mature and risk taking then all the boys. She becomes a Fay Wray, I agree that's lame, but you're exaggerating how long that is and how much screen time she has besides.

An interesting thing when I watched Super 8 with my friends was a split along gender lines on how we read Alice's walking toward the train crash, all the boys thought she was trying to see how close she could get to her own death, all the girls thought she was just in shock and mesmerized by the crash and were flabbergasted we thought such a thing. But I think if you follow through on the mesmerized line of thought it leads to her being drawn in by the possibility of death, because otherwise she's just so naive she doesn't know a train crash is dangerous and just wants to get close to the bright pretty colors. Does anyone else read this different?

So with that reading I felt Alice was a more interesting character than Joe, and she seemed to do more than just be a love interest, but as far as the sister yeah that's lame and cliche, and it does suck there's not more A Girls Life movies, but I don't think "Super 8" is such a He-Man Women Haters Club movie. But maybe I'm wrong, as all the girls didn't engage with Alice the same way and after the movie they talked more about "Whip It" than "Super 8."

Dads

I really liked your post. I had a similar reaction--really enjoyed the movie, liked that it had a heart, but had serious reservations. But my problem was not so much with the portrayal of women (given that the Elle Fanning character is so very much cooler and more level headed than all the dorky boys), but with the portrayal of dads. Just another movie where the mom is dead and the dad has no idea how to be a parent, and the kid eventually makes the "ever since Mom died" speech.

Portrayal of dads

Totally - somehow Joe and Alice's dads never learned basic parenting skills, even though their kids are at least 11 years old. I love the part where Joe is watching the old super 8 home movies in his bedroom and it shows his mother all smiley and then cuts to a shot of his dad standing in the driveway scowling and flipping the bird at the camera for no reason. It sums up the parent characters pretty well.

Dark of the Matinée: That Boy's Life // Super 8 | Bitch Media

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