Being a television/movie star may seem like a dream come true, especially for a child. For any of us that have seen an episode of True Hollywood Stories knows, growing up in the glamour of acting can often be fraught with more problems than be easily counted.
Don McKeller’s latest opus takes a satirical look at the life of one fictitious child star. At the tender age of twelve years old Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall) is a star of a popular television sit-com. His agents decide that he should be used in a new film, made in Canada, First Son.
The plot of the film within a film is itself a joke on the film industry; Taylor is to play the son of the President of the United States. When his dad is kidnapped, his character takes over running the country (I guess the writers forgot about the Vice President), flies into combat on a jet to rescue the First Dad.
What is so darkly funny here is the studio executives actually take a film like this seriously. Producer Philip Templeman, beautifully played by Dave Foley, is abrasive and controlling as he orders people around during the filming as if this film was a serious Oscar contender.
Taylor is a kid with problems, not necessarily the problem one may think a child star has. Although he is used to adults jumping to satisfy is slightest whim he is underneath it all a confused, frustrated boy.
His mother, Suzanne (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has gotten very used to the life style her son’s fame has provided. She basically lives on gift baskets, lives in a studio provided house and storms around the set when she decides to show up at all.
Suzanne immediately starts an affair with their driver, Rick Schiller (Don McKeller) and when being on set cramps her style she signs over parental authority to Rick. Not only does Rick drive the Burns after Taylor fires a string of on set tutors he is also expected to teach the little brat.
Rick has quite a job in teaching a film class in the University to drive part time as he directs his first attempt at an experimental film. He tries to talk to Taylor not as a childstar but as an adult would speak to a child on the cusp of adulthood. They form a bond of sorts; Taylor is not use to an adult actually talking to him instead of just bowing to his wishes.
A former child star Rick Schiller (Brendan Fehr) is assigned the job of keeping Taylor happy. He figures that this means getting him drugs, alcohol and an actress/model/prostitute, in the person of Natalie (Kristin Adams).
She is a pretty blonde that is more than willing to bed the boy, not really surprised that she was his first. As often happens with any male Taylor mistakes sex for something more and begins to fall in love with Natalie.
The next day they take off together for a day away from the set. The studio people are upset with the loss of filming time, the mother sees this as a chance to renegotiates her son’s contract and only Rick appears to be genuinely concerned with the boy.
What set Childstar above so many flicks with the same general plot is Childstar does not concentrate on the external tantrums Taylor throws; Childstar goes into more of what is going on in his mind.
He doesn’t want to believe that Rick paid a good sum of money for Natalie to be with him. He even talks to her about starting a family, a little odd for one of his lacking years, and when she tells him she wants a part as his sister in the sit com he begins to realize what is going on but since he is so divorced from reality he is more than willing to take her back later on.
Taylor has no basis for proper emotional growth or any means to deal with people other than through demands. One reason appears to be his mother, when she sees that a scene in a flight simulator is frightening the boy her only response before she leaves the set is to order only three takes.
Taylor is supporting his divorced parents in rich manner while no one deems to teach him how to grow up. Even the studios know that puberty is coming on soon and since that may bring an end to his ‘cute’ phase, they have to make as much money off of him now as possible.
The cast of Childstar is believable and gives very good performances.
Mark Rendall does well as the spoiled Childstar, able to shift between the infant terrible and the boy in serious emotional need. He has a natural feel to his performance that comes across in such a way that the audience can begin to identify to some degree with him.
Don McKeller gives one of his better performances in Childstar. He plays Rick with some sensitivity to the plight of Taylor while still ultimately looking out for himself. There is chemistry between him and Rendall that helps make Childstar.
As usual Jennifer Jason Leigh gives her all for her portrayal of the new type of stage mother. Instead of hovering over her child she is anxious to delegate all parental responsibility to others, even to the point of giving a relative stranger in loco parentis rights just so she can go off shopping with the money her son earns.
Kristin Adams is a very pretty actress that combines talent with looks. Instead of taking the much used road of the hooker with a heart of gold she is a young woman that is basically committing statutory rape to get a shot at being noticed by the big studios and away from semi-nude photo shoots.
Brendan Fehr was one of the young aliens in Roswell but in Childstar he is one of the least likable characters. Part of his job is corrupting a minor and he seems to have no guilt at all, he just complains that he had to foot the bill for Taylor.
Many directors want to act just as actors desire a shot at directing. Don McKeller does both here adding scriptwriters to the mix. He paces Childstar well; Childstar flows in an easygoing manner that makes Childstar easy and entertaining to watch.
There are moments where he pulls out the art school shots; snow falling on his character after Taylor knocked him out is just one example. While many directors make the mistake of over using these techniques McKeller has enough on the ball to use them sparingly instead of driving Childstar this way.
McKeller plays Childstar lightly, there is no hidden meaning, the characters are even somewhat bland but I took that as they just had very one-dimensional personalities.
Whenever I open my mail and see a Sundance screener from Hart Sharp Video I know that I am in for a treat. Not only to they provide some of the smaller, worthwhile films that do not get the attention they deserve, but they are also mastered to perfection.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic video the color palette is brilliant. The contrast is near reference quality.
Although many online sites list Childstar as having Dolby Stereo it is actually a dynamic 5.1. All the speakers are in use, the rear speakers provide a far more robust feel than most little films like Childstar are given.
There is a commentary track featuring Don McKeller, film editor Reginald Harkema and Christopher Dedrick who provided much of the Childstar original music. In a novel fashion Dedrick brought his guitar along to the commentary taping to provide a little incidental music.
Like many films from Sundance Childstar is a little gem that will entertain.
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