The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) is one of many films that Pip told me about in the early days when we were sharing leads just after my involvement in Pigtails. I made every effort to get a look at all of them and those in which a little girl seemed pivotal to the story, I made a mental note. I was dismayed to discover that Rebecca’s (Rebecca Smart) name did not even appear in the opening credits. That is a serious oversight as she is an important catalyst to the story and provides valuable seamless exposition.
The other remarkable thing about this film is how its background centers around a real commercial product and yet the Coca-Cola Company had no involvement in the movie—except for having their logo and product appear as props. There is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film explaining there is no affiliation or endorsement implied and that the characters and story are completely fictional. I can’t help wondering if this disclaimer was added after production was completed or in anticipation of company complaints. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine a film being made today that does not involve either deliberate product placement or, conversely, a generic fictional brand meant to resemble a real product.
In the story, a man named Becker (Eric Roberts) is sent from Atlanta to Australia to trouble-shoot the marketing and distribution operation there. The staff is warned that he is quirky but is a kind of “rain maker” who can get things accomplished. An equally quirky woman Terri (Greta Scacchi) is assigned as his secretary and the explanation for her periodic odd behavior is gradually revealed during the story. After a strange incident in the office with Terri’s ex-husband, Becker meets the 8-year-old Rebecca for the first time and learns that she is Terri’s daughter. In the first shot of her, we see her taking photocopies of her own face.
It is interesting to note that in the days before the hysteria over child predators, it was commonplace for grown-ups to touch children—even just after meeting them. In moments, Becker is picking Rebecca up, setting her on a counter and fixing her braid. She explains that her nickname is “DMZ” alluding to the fact that she is neutral ground when it comes to her parents’ fights.
The paradox of child characters is that their charm lies not only in their innocence but also in their precocity. Rebecca explains to her mom that she can tell that Becker likes her and decides she should bring him homemade cookies as an offering.
The relationship is quite rocky as Becker continues to deny any interest in this crazy and flustered woman and we do not get a clear resolution until the very end. There is a remarkable scene where Terri and Rebecca are showering together. Many films have short and simple bath scenes, but this one is unusual in its spaciousness. It is a large but intimate shower room and mother and daughter have a long casual conversation culminating in Rebecca’s recitation of the Rapunzel story.
It turns out that there is a kind of marketing desert in an area called Anderson Valley where a powerful and independent soft drink producer, T. George McDowell (Bill Kerr), has a monopoly. Becker’s self-appointed goal is to break this market impasse. In the dirty politics that ensue, Becker is framed in a way that makes him look like a fool, then Terri’s ex-husband turns up for another round of fights. Upset and embarrassed, Becker gets out of the line of fire while Rebecca consoles him, explaining the peculiarities of her parents’ relationship. She gently removes pieces of food that Becker received in the crossfire.
There are some bizarre twists in the end. First, Terri turns out to be McDowell’s estranged daughter and secondly, when McDowell realizes that he cannot win against such a sophisticated opponent, he suddenly decides to destroy his own plant. Distraught, Becker decides to leave the employ of Coca-Cola and in a final scene, he visits Terri’s apartment. Rebecca is there and, while waiting for her mother, he shows her his pet mouse that he takes with him everywhere. Upon Terri’s return, Rebecca offers a charming double entendre, “We have a new tenant, mommy!”
It is clear that Rebecca (“DMZ”) served an important function in bringing Becker and Terri together: acting as a steady sounding board for her mother and a source of comforting calm to Becker.
Smart appeared in at least two other films while she was young: The Shiralee (1987) and Celia (1989). The Shiralee was a two-part TV miniseries about a man name Macauley (Bryan Brown) who travels around the Australian back country looking for work because of his unfortunate habit of getting into fights. I thought the title was curious and it turns out that it is slang for a burden; Macauley has only two Shiralees in his life: his bedroll and his daughter. He ends up with her when he realizes that his wife Marge (Lorna Lesley) is having an affair while he is about finding work. Marge was apparently spiking Buster’s (Smart) milk with brandy so she would go to sleep and not make trouble. Macauley comes in one night and takes her. Since he has to work, he must take her on his travels with him and here we see her getting outfitted with her “traveling clothes”.
Although I’m sure the original novel was well-written, the film was not convincing and it is my guess that the Director (George Ogilvie) had little experience with children. Buster’s bond with her father is almost inexplicable given the circumstances, but she has a substantial role in bringing out the best in the people they encounter. I will also do a short review on Celia when time permits.