After watching HBO’s feature-length documentary ‘Showbiz Kids,’ I found myself immediately taken back to my review of Honey Boy in 2019. During that 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 those themes now find an increased voice within Alex Winter’s carefully considered new documentary on child actors. With interviews that reflect the joy, pain and emotion of an exciting yet challenging onscreen world. While delicately unpicking the darker side of Hollywood as childhood innocence and imagination meet an adult world of money and power.
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. I ask you for a moment to consider that figure. How many of those children are driven by the individual desire for a career? And how many are driven by the need to please a parent?. These very questions are explored by looking back at the experience of child stars of the past. While also dovetailing this within the journey of two young hopefuls today.
Of course, TV documentaries about child stars past and present are nothing new. Many revelling in the pitfalls of young fame, while often dissecting ‘where it went wrong’; feeding on misery, premature death, imprisonment and rehab. The cute and innocent pint-sized star of the past reduced to a damaged and deflated adult mess. The media and public themselves abusing the very people they once held aloft as teenage pinups or cute and innocent kids.
Therefore it is refreshing to find a documentary that allows those affected to talk so openly about their experience; removing the tabloid sensualism often associated with the topic. As 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) recount their own experiences amongst others. The loneliness, excitement and parental pressure of their careers etched into engaging and honest reflections on their journey to and from stardom.
However, Showbiz Kids is at its most fascinating and delicate; when exploring the role of parents, agents, and studios in protecting young stars. A topic that has continued to haunt the Hollywood system for years. With the public turning a blind eye to the cause of so many child stars falling from grace as adults, or worse ending their own lives through substance abuse or suicide.
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.’ Both actors, in turn, helping to shine an essential light on the abuse of boys in Hollywood; a topic that has remained in the shadows until very recently. At the same time, Milla Jovovich recounts her experiences of being sexualised in photo shoots aged just fourteen. Her body a commodity in the eyes of publicists keen to use her emerging sexuality for sales.
However, Winter’s documentary does not seek to provide comprehensive solutions to the abuse of the past, instead opting to bring these stories into the light. Alongside an explicit discussion on the changes in the Hollywood system since the 80s and 90s. The dangers of inappropriate photoshoots replaced by the no-mans-land of social media and intrusion for the young stars of today. Their attempts to navigate a new tech-driven world leading to even less privacy than their 80s and 90s counterparts. With every moment of their challenging and private journey to adult life becoming public property.
Meanwhile, our two young aspiring stars take differing journeys to success, one slowly giving up her childhood freedom for roles that offer further opportunities. While the other realises that drama is simply not for him, preferring comedy. But despite the level headed decisions of both the kids and their parents. The question remains, who is the child working to impress? Themselves? Their parents? Or the adults in suits who control their worth?
Of course, these questions are in no way a criticism of the child. Or, a condemnation of children in film and TV, after all without kids on-screen our world would be a dull place. But I can’t help but feel that the system would improve 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 allowing kids in the spotlight to ask upfront and honest questions and receive clear, and unbiased answers.
Ultimately, Showbiz Kids raises far more questions than it answers while equally allowing for frank and, at times, disturbing commentary. The Hollywood system of casting and protection slowly changing yet still unable to fully reflect the unique pressures many child stars face on their journey. From drugs and drink to family pressure or sudden career loss due to the onset of puberty.
But the overriding concern remains the loneliness that comes from a career built on adult structures. The ability of the child to understand the world into which they enter, leading to isolation and vulnerability. And the answer to this lies in the ability of ex-child stars to share their experiences. Their experience and insight further helping to build a better system of support and protection for future generations.
Director: Alex Winter