The Dark Side of Innocence: Celia

I dislike using the word “innocence” because it is so misused and often only in a positive context. However, it is my experience that children are just like adults in almost every way. They can be cruel, generous, vengeful, courageous, cowardly, just and unjust. In my remarks about Ana in Cría cuervos—which Pip recently reviewed—I said that she was absolved of murder in the audience’s eyes because the can of baking soda was not really poison and thus she never really killed anyone. But Pip pointed out that this is irrelevant from a moral perspective. Because children do not yet have a fully-developed grasp of consequences, they can do things with full confidence that we would consider rash and they themselves might regret later.

I discovered Celia (1989) while reviewing The Coca-Cola Kid starring Rebecca Smart and I did some follow up by watching The Shiralee and added some supplemental information at the end of that post. But when I watched Celia, I knew this film had real substance and would have to stand alone. The typical synopsis says that Celia is a troubled girl, but my impression is she is a real child—no less than, say, Huck Finn. Pip said that he once saw this film for rent in the horror section! Ridiculous; this is clearly a period drama reflecting the anxieties of a troubled society in 1957/58 Australia. The ostensible horror comes from Celia’s dreams and imaginings associated with the death of her beloved Granny and fueled by the story of the Hobyahs who creep about at night snatching people.

The stage is set when Celia Carmichael (Smart) goes to the shack where her grandmother lives and finds her dead. The depth of their relationship is revealed gradually and here we see a sincere Celia telling her Granny that she will miss her. Throughout the movie, she imagines seeing Granny as though she were still alive.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (1)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (1)

Because of her close bond with Granny, she did not really take the time to bond with other children and she appears to have only one friend, Heather Goldman (Clair Couttie).

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (2)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (2)

A family called the Tanners move in next door and she starts to bond with them. At first, her mother is pleased to see her playing with other children.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (3)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (3)

We learn that she is turning 9 during the Christmas break and that she has a nemesis, Stephanie Burke (Amelia Frid), the daughter of a police sergeant the family call “Uncle John”. It is revealed that the girls are engaged in a pitched but covert battle. Celia wants a rabbit for her birthday, but her father refuses, telling her they are vermin. In the background of this story are two political dramas: one involving the fear of communism and the other, the plague of rabbits that are destroying farmers’ crops. When school resumes, Celia is irritated that Stephanie got a pet rabbit and she didn’t.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (4)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (4)

The neighborhood children spend a lot of time playing in an abandoned quarry with a kind of contaminated water hole and a shed. Celia shares her magic mask with the other children which Stephanie ridicules and runs off with, resulting in a chase and a fight. Celia returns victorious with a lock of Stephanie’s hair.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (5)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (5)

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (6)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (6)

Celia and the Tanner children—Steve, Karl and Meryl—become fast friends and they take a blood oath together, “Swear on my living heart; blood will never part.” This oath presumes that the Tanners are now allied with Celia against Stephanie.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (7)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (7)

We learn that Granny read a lot of books about communism and Celia observes that Alice Tanner (Victoria Longley), the mother, has similar materials. This is a kind of signal that Alice is taking the place of Granny in watching over Celia. In so bonding, Celia brings over some of Granny’s papers and photographs which the Tanners examine knowingly. Whenever Celia got lonely or in trouble, she would sneak into Granny’s shack for comfort, but now she has Alice.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (8)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (8)

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (9)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (9)

Celia’s father, Ray, notices a pamphlet—which Alice had used to make a paper airplane—and interrogates Celia about it. In a rage, Ray goes into Granny’s shack and takes all the books out to burn them which upsets Celia terribly. In a scheme to get her not to play with the Tanners any more, he buys her a rabbit. Does she name it Flopsy or Patch? No, her rabbit is named Murgatroid.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (10)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (10)

Somehow, word of the Tanners’ sympathies with communist philosophy reaches the children at large and Stephanie and her allies go the quarry to taunt and attack the others. The police arrive to break up the fight and Uncle John begins to show his hypocrisy by punishing the other children but not his own daughter who started the fight.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (11)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (11)

Celia learns that Evan Tanner got sacked from his job because he refused to leave the Australian Peace Council which was widely regarded as a communist front. The kids believe it was Uncle John who was the informant and so they engage in a little witchcraft, burning the Burke family in effigy and then throwing the dolls into Stephanie’s room at night. Later they learn that it was actually Ray, in a misguided attempt at manipulation, and Celia leads the children in burning her own father in effigy.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (12)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (12)

While doing this, they are ambushed by Stephanie and the other children who lock them up in the shed and torture Murgatroid by scorching her rear with a burning brand. Celia, at her angriest in the film, vows to get even.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (13)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (13)

After the Tanners move away, a government policy has forced all the children to turn their rabbits in to the zoo. John visits the Carmichaels to convince them that Celia must give up Murgatroid as well, but they refuse. When Stephanie forms a kind of support group for children who have lost their rabbits, she is mystified why Celia does not join. And when Celia returns home, she realizes that her rabbit is gone too and blames Uncle John.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (14)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (14)

After much posturing and politicking and a popular letter-writing campaign, the government is pressured to allow permits for pet rabbits. The children all go to the zoo to retrieve their rabbits, but Celia and Heather learn that theirs died during their temporary internment.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (15)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (15)

They vow to get revenge. They get dressed up and put on war paint in readiness to rid themselves of the despicable Sergeant Burke. Celia was aware her father kept a shotgun for hunting ducks and readies it. The thing that psyches Celia into pulling the trigger is that she imagines that her Uncle John is a Hobyah and suddenly he is dead.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (16)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (16)

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (17)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (17)

Celia and Heather try to hide some of the evidence and Heather is made to swear that this act will be kept a secret forever. The police learn that it was Ray’s shotgun that was used but cannot find a suspect. Celia’s mother later notices a bruise on her chest and realizes what has happened.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (18)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (18)

The Carmichael family keep quiet and Celia seems to resume her normal life. When Stephanie returns to school after the tragedy, Celia has a change of heart and prays with the rest of the class for their family’s future well-being. In one final ritual, Celia leads all the children to the quarry to conduct a symbolic hanging to give Stephanie some closure for the unsolved murder and Heather, who plays the condemned prisoner, has proven she can keep a secret. The children are united now as they race up the slope of the quarry.

Ann Turner - Celia (1989) (19)

Ann Turner – Celia (1989) (19)

The notion of an innocent girl as a cop killer is a truly remarkable premise and, I believe, well executed in this film. The implications are disturbing, but it serves to challenge our assumptions of what a child is and what justice is. In times of stress, so often people resort to black-and-white dogmatic beliefs: communists are evil, rabbits are vermin, the government is always right. But we see throughout the film that many injustices are committed by the authorities—the mothers, the fathers, the school teachers, the police and government officials.

Product Placement? Rebecca Smart

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.

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev - The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (1)

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev – The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (1)

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.

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev - The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (2)

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev – The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (2)

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.

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev - The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (3)

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev – The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (3)

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.

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev - The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (4)

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev – The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (4)

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev - The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (5)

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev – The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (5)

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev - The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (6)

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev – The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (6)

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.

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev - The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (7)

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev – The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (7)

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!”

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev - The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (8)

Frank Moorhouse, David Roe & Dušan Makavejev – The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (8)

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”.

D'Arcy Niland, Tony Morphett and George Ogilvy - The Shiralee (1987)

D’Arcy Niland, Tony Morphett and George Ogilvie – The Shiralee (1987)

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.