Child actor abuse

Cut! Now, someone get me a Juice Squeeze.

Cut! Now, someone get me a Juice Squeeze.

There is a school of thought that equates child acting with child abuse. The entertainment industry is the only one that can legally employ child labor, and although California has tougher child-actor laws than most states, Hollywood productions can avoid them by shooting in less restrictive locations like British Columbia.

This troubling concept was hammered home recently when I made an unintentional double feature of The Runaways and Kick-Ass. Both are new to DVD, both prominently feature child actors, and both seem to cross a line in dealing with their underage stars.

Floria Sigismondi’s sparkly but shallow The Runaways stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, who have both been punching the clock since before they turned 10. Stewart has little to do besides make “the Bella face” and look smoking hot in Joan Jett’s proto-mullet, while Fanning plays Cherie Currie, the band’s similarly underage singer.

In the based-on-fact scene in which Cherie’s skeevy manager forces her to pose for cheesecake photos, you can’t watch Fanning (who has been working for adults since she was 5) obediently rolling around in a bikini for an on-screen film crew and not appreciate/deplore the many levels of exploitation and meta-exploitation at play.

Of course, children don’t just sell sex, they also sell violence pretty well. The most disturbing aspect of Matthew Vaughn’s joyless Kick-Ass isn’t preteen Chloe Moretz’s vigilante Hit Girl savagely slaughtering people in slow motion, or calling her black opponents “cunts.” It’s that she’s the only character the film has any grasp on, while the rest plays like an inept crossover episode of Smallville and Degrassi Junior High.

Perhaps child labor in the entertainment industry isn’t a big deal; they aren’t exactly paid sweatshop wages. Then again, Hollywood’s lifetime record on the moral turpitude and law-abiding skills of former child actors isn’t particularly encouraging.