Showbiz Kids is showing now on Sky Documentaries.
After watching HBO’s feature-length documentary Showbiz Kids, I immediately returned to my review of Honey Boy in 2019. In my review, I explored the interface between loneliness, fame, and the demand of unbalanced parental expectations on the child as the film’s writer and star, Shia LaBeouf, laid bare his childhood journey through the fictional character of Otis Lort. Many of these themes find an urgent voice in Alex Winter’s carefully considered documentary on child actors. Here a series of interviews reflect the joy, pain and emotion of an exciting yet challenging onscreen world while delicately unpicking the darker side of Hollywood.
Showbiz Kids opens with a startling fact; every year, 20,000 child actors audition for roles in Hollywood, with 95% of them not securing any work. For a moment, consider that figure; how many of those children are driven by the individual desire for a career? And how many are guided by the need to please a parent?. These questions are explored by looking back at the experience of child stars from the past while also exploring the journey of two young hopefuls today.
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TV documentaries about child stars past and present are nothing new, with a whole host of specials exploring the pitfalls of young fame and where it went wrong from premature death to imprisonment and rehab. In these shows, we see the past cute, innocent pint-sized stars reduced to a damaged adult mess as the media unpick the stars they once held aloft as teenage pinups or cute and innocent kids. It is, therefore, refreshing to watch a documentary that allows those at the heart of the experience to speak openly without tabloid judgement. Here Henry Thomas (E.T.), Will Wheaton (Stand By Me), Mara Wilson (Mrs Doubtfire), Milla Jovovich (Return to the Blue Lagoon), and the late Cameron Boyce (Jessie, Descendants) openly discuss their own experiences of loneliness, excitement and parental pressure.
However, Showbiz Kids is at its most fascinating when exploring the role of parents, agents, and studios in protecting our young stars. – a topic that has haunted the Hollywood system for years. Here Winter unpicks the relentless drive for success, the desire for fame and the adult environment these young stars are thrown into at a young age. These destructive forces are highlighted by Todd Bridges (Diff’rent Strokes), who speaks openly on camera about his sexual abuse at the hands of a publicist. Meanwhile, actor Evan Rachel Woods (Thirteen) states that ‘nearly all the young men she knew as a teenager were abused in some way, sexually.’ At the same time, Milla Jovovich recounts her experiences of being sexualised in photo shoots aged just fourteen.
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Winter’s documentary never seeks to provide easy answers to abuse suffered at the heart of the Hollywood system but instead opts to bring these stories into the light. Here he reflects on the positive changes made since the 80s in the system while also exploring the new wild-west of social media. Meanwhile, we see our two young aspiring stars take differing journeys to success, with one slowly giving up her childhood freedom while the other decides that acting is not for him, and he prefers comedy. But despite the level headed decisions of both the kids and their parents, one question remains; who is the child trying to impress? Themselves? Their parents? Or the adults in suits who control their worth?
These questions are in no way a criticism of the child or a condemnation of the vital role children play in film and TV; without kids on-screen, our world would be dull. But surely the system would improve further if every child actor had a mentor who had been through the same experiences as them – a safety net of support not attached to the production or their parents.
Ultimately, Showbiz Kids raises far more questions than it answers with the ability of the child to understand the world into which they enter firmly rooted in the support structure around them. But, it is clear that these support structures are not yet fit for purpose, and more can, and should, be done to protect young talent from a scary world of pressure, money and instant fame.
Director: Alex Winter