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Acting their age

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Posted: Sunday, August 21, 2005 6:49 am | Updated: 8:16 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Child actor Chase Ellison gives a brave, haunting performance in Gregg Araki’s critically acclaimed child abuse saga "Mysterious Skin," but it could be years before the 11-year-old or his friends see the movie in its entirety.

The reason: "Mysterious Skin," while about children, is by no stretch of the imagination for children. The film graphically depicts the predatory seduction of a fatherless 10-year-old boy (Ellison) by his youth baseball coach (Bill Sage). Elsewhere in the movie, Ellison is called upon to simulate masturbation and pantomime the molestation of a retarded child.

Though uniquely candid, "Mysterious Skin" is by no means the only recent independent film to depict children in sexually charged or provocative situations. Besides confounding the ratings board, such films present filmmakers with a fundamental dilemma: How do you create the illusion of child endangerment without, in fact, committing it? It’s a fine line, often navigated with guile, ingenuity and filmmaking sleight of hand.

Writer-director Miranda July encountered a touchy situation on her Sundance-feted debut feature, "Me and You and Everyone We Know." The script called for Robby, played by 6-year-old Brandon Ratcliff, to blunder into an Internet relationship with an adult who mistakes his innocent toilet talk for, well, sexual toilet talk. To shield Ratcliff from the lurid flip side of his dialogue, July barred him from seeing the responses to Robby’s scatthemed e-mails, editing the footage so that the chat-room exchange appeared seamless. Nor did she explain the look of shock on the face of Robby’s pen pal when she discovers that her would-be lover is actually a child.

"As a filmmaker, the last thing you want to do is place kids in emotional or physical jeopardy," July says. "Especially for me, coming from a place of really loving those kids."

CONTENTIOUS ISSUE

The use of child actors in sexually themed movies has long been a bone of popular contention, with criticism often focused on the parent. Teri Shields, the mother of Brooke Shields, was roundly savaged in the press for allowing her daughter, then 12, to appear nude in Louis Malle’s prostitution drama "Pretty Baby" (1978).

Appearing naked in front of the film’s grips and gaffers wasn’t a pleasant experience for the actress. Co-star Susan Sarandon reportedly gave Shields a thong so she could film the scene with some semblance of modesty.

More recently, Larry Clark’s "Kids" (1995) churned up funnels of controversy over its chilling portrayal of a teenage scoundrel (Leo Fitzpatrick) who goes on a virgin-deflowering rampage, unwittingly spreading AIDS in the process. Hailed by some as consciousness-raising but criticized by others as soft-core kiddie porn, the film was slapped with an NC-17 rating, effectively banning it from most video rental chains.

Just last year, A-list luminary Nicole Kidman took a mild public-relations tumble when conservative pundits took exception to a sexless (if sexually charged) bathtub scene she shared with 12-yearold actor Cameron Bright in "Birth" (2004).

Benign stuff compared with "Mysterious Skin," though it generated far more controversy. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that "Birth" featured an A-list star, always a useful lightning rod for special-interest and advocacy groups wishing to energize their own media presence.

PROTECTING KIDS

The taboo subject matter of "Mysterious Skin" prompted several young actors and their parents to pass on the project outright, according to the movie’s casting director, Shannon Makhanian. Eventually, a cast was found, but suppressing parental anxieties remained a priority.

"It was very important to Gregg that we protect the kids," Makhanian says. "So he didn’t give them the full script. He only gave them their own specific lines, so they didn’t have a larger sense of what was happening. He also sat down with the parents and showed them how he planned to shoot it in a way that would not harm (their children)."

Indeed, the younger cast members may not even have been aware that they were filming a movie about sex abuse. Araki shot the molestation scene using "one-shots" (where only one actor appears in the frame) and a fake torso. When Araki needed a reaction from Ellison, he provided emotional surrogates.

‘‘He would tell Chase, ‘Think of something that makes you really happy or excited, like video games,’ ’’ Makhanian recalls. ‘‘Or if the scene called for Chase to be scared, he’d ask him to think of something that made him really scared. That’s how it was done.’’

Upon wrapping the movie, Araki presented Ellison with a reel of his work — minus the depictions of abuse.

GROWING UP FAST

Despite the precautions taken by Araki and other filmmakers, some film-industry observers are staunchly opposed to the use of children in explicitly adult-themed productions. Melissa Caldwell of the Parents Television Counsel, a conservative watchdog group, doubts that child actors always walk away unscathed.

"Whenever you see young actors describing horrific crimes or acting out certain sexual situations, you have to wonder what kind of images are put into their heads," Caldwell says. "I saw Dakota Fanning talking about the tactics Steven Spielberg used to make her cry. I think that kind of thing will have a negative effect in the long run."

Certainly, audiences are accustomed to seeing child actors grow up into erratic, self-destructive adults, though the pathology is never certain (was it "Diff’rent Strokes" that poisoned Dana Plato, or the independent, turbulent lifestyle it afforded?).

More to the point, what will happen to Ellison, four or five years from now, when he watches "Mysterious Skin" and discovers the full extent of his on-screen abuse (a circumstance that mirrors the plot of the movie itself)? Will he feel deceived? Embarrassed? Or will he proudly reflect on his contribution to a unique and much-admired piece of art?

At the very least, Ellison’s experience will force him to grow up a little faster. In Hollywood, time waits for no child.

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