Here’s an interesting rule of thumb for filmmakers: never show a child crying. I had never heard of the rule until watching some of the documentary content on the DVD for The Sixth Sense, in which M. Night Shyamalan discusses the choices he made when he directed Haley Joel Osment in certain key scenes in the film. He took great care not to have Osment ever giving in to the despair of his predicament with tears.
I thought that was an interesting rule, something I had not thought about, but it wasn’t until years later that I experienced first-hand why that’s a good rule.
For starters, let me clarify. I don’t mean (and I don’t think Shyamalan meant) that you can’t ever show children crying in any fashion. You can show children crying when the audience knows they’re not really suffering. You can show children crying if the tears are from the release of adrenaline as they stay strong in the face of a challenge. What you can’t do is show children crying in surrender to despair. What Shyamalan said in the documentary was that as soon as you do that, you’ve lost the audience. The audience will stay with a film through anything else, but as soon as you cross that line, you’ve lost them.
As I said, I thought that was pretty interesting, because it was a concern of the filmmaking process that I hadn’t thought about before. I tried to remember the scenes of children crying in movies I’d seen, and I was somewhat surprised that I could remember so few. What few I could remember were softened in some way: a child might cry if an adult is actively providing comfort and support. A child might cry for comic effect if he’s not really hurt. The neighborhood bully might cry when he gets his comeuppance as the main kid finally summons the nerve to stand up to him.
For me, the most memorable and moving scene of a child crying is in A Christmas Story, when Ralphie snaps and loses control of himself and starts beating up the neighborhood bully. Here, though, it is not the bully who’s crying so much as Ralphie himself, the moment his mother brings him back to his senses, and Ralphie is so overwhelmed when the adrenaline subsides that he breaks out into tears. We know he’s really ok, so the movie does not lose us, but it is an incredibly moving scene all the same. Not unpleasantly moving — moving in almost a sweet way, because it’s a moment when Ralphie’s childlike view of the world brushes up against the complications of maturity, and we know that he will grow up a little as he grapples to understand it.
But anytime I remembered a scene where children are truly overcome by terror or suffering, they do not actually cry. They scream, they shout, they run, they panic, but they do not cry.
Years later, I saw a film that reminded me of this rule of thumb, and I came to understand it. It was City of God (2002), a film about gangsters in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. It shows how they organize and rule the city, and how children start out admiring them and grow up to become gangsters themselves. It’s every bit as hip and flashy and stylized as Pulp Fiction, but it has an extra bite to it because it paints such a vivid overall picture of the cycle of violence in this place and time.
The film is a masterwork, and I nearly chose it as the best film of 2002 in our recent Best of the Year series on the podcast. My admiration for it is qualified. There is a scene in the middle where a couple of kids rip off a particularly notorious gangster, a guy who killed his way to the top and stays there because no one dares to stand up to him. The kids are caught, casually injured, and the gangster instructs one of his new minions, sort of as a rite of passage, to take a gun, and kill one of the two children. The film lingers on the fear and pain of the children, and they shed tears in surrender to their anguish.
And just like that, the film lost me.
You must understand, until that moment I was 100% with this movie. It was brutal and tough and violent, but it was such a compelling, intelligent story, and so convincing and insightful at illustrating why and how the cycle of gang violence continues and how it affects people’s lives and how people are drawn into that world. But all it took was one scene, a mere few seconds, and I was done with it. I withdrew myself from the film and continued watching from a distance. Eventually, the film won me back, but the whole experience was irrevocably changed.
Ultimately, I think I begrudgingly accepted that scene because the film felt like it was painting an honest picture of something that happens in the real world. Certainly the story is ostensibly based on the real-life story of one of the characters, and the things he saw and heard growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. But if this were a film of escapism, an action flick made purely to entertain, the scene would have been unforgivable. As it is, I admire it, but I do not like it. My feelings for the film as a whole are still of greatly enthusiastic admiration, and I’m glad I’ve seen it, and I hope people see it — but I hesitate to use words that are too personal. I am reluctant to say that I “love” the film, though it overflows with filmmaking that is more than worthy of that kind of passion.
Would the scene have been any less difficult if the kids hadn’t been crying? It’s a valid question. Obviously it still would have been a difficult scene to watch. That was a terrible situation to see unfold, not just because one of the two kids is going to die, but because the young man doing the shooting is going to cross a line that will permanently destroy any chance of his escaping the madness of a violent life.
One can only speculate. But after considerable thought — frankly, more thought than I’d rather have given this heartwrenching moment — I honestly think that if the two kids had not been crying, I wouldn’t have withdrawn from the film so decisively. It still would have been tremendously difficult to watch, but if the two kids had stood and faced the situation with dry eyes, however terrified they might still have been, I’d have stayed with the film through the scene.
I’m open to arguments that it’s still better the way it is. But there are more than just those two ways to play it, too. The film could have cut away sooner, for example. For whatever reason, the director and editor chose to play it with tears, to play it for whatever length of time, to cut between these particular faces, to give each character in the scene whichever percentage of screen time, to mix in those particular sounds at those particular volume levels, and so on and so on and so on. I think the film pushes the audience too far. But who am I to say how far is too far in the portrayal of a great evil in our world?