The 1957 Little League World Series team from Monterrey, Mexico is facing another David and Goliath story this weekend. This time it doesn't happen on a baseball diamond, but at the box office. The Perfect Game is based on the true story of a poor Mexican Little League team's improbable road to baseball immortality. How will these boys fare against an 11-year-old foul-mouthed, blood-spattered vigilante named "Hit Girl" - one of the featured killers in the indie comic book-based Kick-A**? The answer will say a lot about the kind of culture we inhabit, and what it considers "entertainment."
Children as Innocents
As cultural critic Neil Postman noted in The Disappearance of Childhood, the idea of childhood as a protected time from infancy to adolescence has its roots in the concept of innocence. Children were to be protected from the corrupting influences of the adult world until they could gain the chronological maturity necessary to understand and protect themselves. Postman explained, "One might say that one of the main differences between an adult and a child is that the adult knows about certain facets of life -- its mysteries, its contradictions, its violence, its tragedies -- that are not considered suitable for children to know: that are indeed shameful to reveal to them indiscriminately."
The Perfect Game presents children as children. Little League in 1957 was not beset by many of the problems associated with the professionalizing of the sport today. None of the children look like roided-out Mark McGuire wannabes. Sandy Koufax is a hero to them, but they are not concerned about scouts in the stands; they just want to make their families and their country proud of them - and to play ball.
The kids are not rubes. They have experienced their own share of tragedy. One of the boys has lost his brother. All of them live in a poor town - they have to make their gear out of things they can scrounge. When Angel, the team's pitcher, finds a real baseball out in a field, the kids think it is a gift from God, so they ask Him for a bat. The team also faces racism on the road. The film does not sugarcoat the prejudice that existed alongside the Leave it to Beaver suburban ideal of the 1950s.
The adults in The Perfect Game are not flawless. Angel's father is nursing a grudge against God for taking Angel's older brother. The coach, Cesar, was part of a major league organization, but moved back to Mexico when he was denied a promotion, apparently based on his race. Despite these flaws, most of the adults in the film recognize their responsibility to support, encourage, and protect these young players. Padre Esteban and Reverend Clarence provide the team with spiritual and tangible support. It is refreshing to see clergy portrayed in a way that actually represents the kind of selfless service that the vast majority of people provide - even though that kind of work rarely makes headlines.
While the young people with whom I screened The Perfect Game loved the film, it saddened me that the kind of innocence and purity of motive exemplified in this film has to be viewed through the lens of the past. The funny thing is, many of the critics who will pass on The Perfect Game because of the nostalgic way it presents children, will laud as "luminous and exciting," "gloriously perverse," and "cool" the prepubescent character of "Hit Girl" in the post-modern comic-book film Kick-A**.
Children as Exploitation
There is no doubt that Chloe Moretz turns in a fully-committed performance in her role as Hit Girl - one half of a father-daughter vigilante team on a quest to destroy a criminal empire. But it is precisely the film's gleeful exploitation of the image of a little girl engaging in over-the-top violence worthy of a Tarantino film that makes it work - and that is troubling.That 11-year-old Hit Girl also becomes the object of desire for a 17-year-old boy is disturbing as well. The only saving grace is the boy's proclamation that he would "wait for her" - the film's singular nod to self-restraint.
Because Kick-A** is rated R, children are not the target audience for this movie (but we should not be so naive as to think that legions of them won't find a way in). There won't be any kids meal tie-ins with fast food restaurants. In order for this film to succeed, adults will have to line up and pay to watch an 11-year-old girl hurl the most vulgar profanities to come out of a kid's mouth since The Exorcist. That it is done with a wink does nothing to make it more acceptable. In an interview, Moretz admitted that her mother would never allow her to use that kind of language at home, or anywhere. Yet mom signed off on making her daughter's character, in what will become a signature role, a cultural icon - an image to be praised and emulated by others. Isn't that ironic?
We Get What We Support
In this David and Goliath battle at the box office, the winner is predetermined. Kick-A** is slated to open on nearly ten times the number of screens as The Perfect Game. And that is telling as well. Our culture prefers its entertainment loud and bloody, undercutting the horror with humor and stylized camera work. We have become so desensitized that the only way to create surprise and shock value for adults is to take a cute, vulnerable-looking girl in a school uniform, turn her into an obscenity-spewing death machine, and then watch as she slaughters with abandon and is herself beaten to a bloody pulp by an adult male. She kills, we cheer -- and our culture dies a little.
But there is an alternative. Find a theater showing The Perfect Game and take your children to see it. Invite your friends. Let them watch kids overcome the odds, with support from caring adults, and achieve something meaningful. How a film does on opening weekend determines whether it will expand in the following weeks or disappear from the theater. At the risk of beating this drum too loudly, if we say we want films that really represent our values, then we simply must support them. Otherwise characters such as Hit Girl will simply be the opening salvos in a continuing war against childhood innocence.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org