French countryside, 1942. 15-year-old Sara (Ariella Glaser) returns from school sad. There was a sign on the door of the bakery she always liked to visit: “We don’t serve Jews.” The girl’s parents exchange nervous glances. Should they protect their daughter by hiding the news coming from abroad from her for as long as possible, or should they rather have an honest conversation, preparing her for the worst? How can you explain to a child what adults themselves cannot understand? The creators of the film “White Bird: A Wonder Story” show’s a similar question. Is family cinema able to contain the emotional weight of the topic of extermination?
Marc Forster’s new film, based on the novel by RJ Palacio, focuses on the further fate of Julian (Bryce Gheisar), a class tormentor known to viewers from “Wonder” (2017). After changing school, a teenager cannot find his way in the new reality. So he tries to blend in with the crowd, separating himself from the world with a hood pulled over his head and a pair of headphones. At home, he doesn’t even have to make a special effort – the symbol of his parents’ (absence) is a lunch box left in the fridge. And when it seems that nothing will be able to free the boy from his growing sense of senselessness, he is unexpectedly visited by his eccentric grandmother Sara (Helen Mirren).
Worried about her grandson’s apathy, she decides to share with him the previously reluctantly told story of her first great love, which matured during the Nazi occupation. But will the boy, desensitized to the world around him, even want to hear about the events from over 80 years ago, and going further – will a teenage viewer today find something for themselves in this story? The marriage of a romance from young adult cinema and the events of World War II seemed to me at first an undertaking oscillating on the verge of inappropriateness. But searching for friendship and closeness is the sacred law of youth. It seems like a cliché, but it completely escaped me.
When starting work on “White Bird: A Wonder Story“, Forster already had considerable experience not only in making film adaptations, but above all in films that captivate the viewer with their simplicity, such as in “The Kite Runner“. Yes, he later had blunders, when stories intended as tearjerkers crossed the threshold into kitsch, but his latest film has only one such moment, and the weakness of Boy is due to the shortcomings of computer effects rather than the plot itself.
The viewer must be respected and I see no reason why this simple rule should not apply to young viewers. Children deserve the truth, so the father speaks openly in Sara’s presence about the increasingly brutal persecution of the Jewish population, and Forster takes up the topic of the Holocaust in family cinema. The girl must cope in a world in which children, on the one hand, fall victim to cruelty on an unprecedented scale, and, on the other hand, become perpetrators of violence themselves. The director shows how high a price had to be paid by those who, against their survival instinct, chose decency. The young viewer will therefore have to face the topic of injustice, loss and death.
However, Forster does not give up the magical element, placing it where we still find moments of relief today – in the cinema. In an era when film played a disgraceful role in producing and reproducing fascist propaganda, the projector could also bring comfort. Reading the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, it is difficult to understand that art could bring any comfort in the perspective of genocide. Yet Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and prisoner of the German Auschwitz concentration camp, described how important improvised cabaret performances were for the prisoners. Many were able to give up their already poor food rations for them.
Boy does not avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality, but nevertheless leaves the young viewer with an important message about the importance of individual responsibility. It can be sweet and naive at times, but ultimately it does not choose an easy happy ending, accustoming the child audience to the truth that life without losses is not possible. However, it shows where to look for hope. His characters find it in friendship, kindness and community action, opposing the pessimistic narrative about the senselessness of individual actions in a world engulfed by a global crisis.
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