In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Films about Children

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Selected Film Reviews
  • Documentary Film Resources
  • Child Refugees and Migrants
  • Structural Inequities
  • Child Labor
  • Street Children
  • Child Sexual Abuse and Trafficking
  • Young Victims of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic
  • Schooling and Education
  • Children as Consumers

Childhood Studies Films about Children
Rachana Agarwal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0074


The image of the child in cinema appeared as early as the 1890s in the pioneering work of French filmmakers the Lumière Brothers. Scholars have remarked on the invention of the motion picture and the identification of adolescence as a noteworthy life stage by G. Stanley Hall as almost simultaneously occurring events at the beginning of the 1900s. For well over a century since then, children and youth have inhabited various, often stereotypical roles in mainstream cinema: the cherubic child, the sexualized girl, the demonic son, the troubled adolescent, the rebellious teenager, the juvenile delinquent, and so on. Film critics have posited that in some cases children have become vehicles for projections of the “other” in relation to the supposedly reasonable, civilized, usually male adult. Teen film has emerged as a genre by itself, with distinct subgenres, and youth have been considered one of the most lucrative target audiences for the film industry. Indeed children’s films, such as Disney productions and the Harry Potter series, have been major box office successes and children have become voracious consumers. Nevertheless, children’s involvement in filmmaking has given rise to concerns about thematic suitability and censorship in cinema as well as the ethical complexities of recruiting children to enact certain roles. The focus here, however, is not films for children, rather films about children; more specifically, films that depict the lived realities of children and youth around the globe. Hence, the main entries in this section are documentaries about children, some biographical films or docudramas closely based on true life events, and a few commercial films that capture a significant insight about the lives of children and youth. Broadly, the themes examined in the selected films relate to structural factors such as race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and class that cogently shape the worlds of children, sometimes adversely; the combined effects of biological, sociocultural, physical, and environmental influences on child and youth development; schooling and educational practices; the dramatic consequences of conflict on children’s lives; forms of child abuse and exploitation; and cross-cultural comparisons.

General Overviews

Most of the literature concerns representations of children and youth in commercial films, largely from Hollywood. Considine 1985 is a pioneering analysis of adolescence in film. Doherty 1988 discusses the rise of the teen film genre in Hollywood. Driscoll 2011 focuses on anglophone films made for and about youth. Jackson 1986 traces the changing images of children pre– and post–World War II, while Lebeau 2008 historicizes cinematic representations of children highlighting themes of sexuality, violence, suffering, and death. Lury 2010 investigates the portrayal of children in selected film genres as a projection of the “other”; Shary 2005 provides a concise, chronological discussion of American teenagers in film; and Wilson 2003 analyses the missing child in film as a vehicle for grappling with related emotional and psychological issues.

  • Considine, David M. The Cinema of Adolescence. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1985.

    This seminal text chronicles the portrayal of adolescence in American films, identifying major themes—sexuality, delinquency, etc.—and character types. Examines the symbiotic relation between Hollywood and youth culture.

  • Doherty, Thomas. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

    Doherty provides an in-depth examination of the emergence of the teen film phenomenon and the reasons for its exponential rise in Hollywood.

  • Driscoll, Catherine. Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. New York: Berg, 2011.

    Provides an expansive historiography of teen film and analyses a broad spectrum of mainstream anglophone films made for and about youth.

  • Jackson, Kathy Merlock. Images of Children in American Film: A Sociocultural Analysis. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1986.

    A study of the transforming images of children in cinema from that of pure innocence pre-World War II to significant variations observed after the war. Argues that this transformation is a consequence and reflection of the changing social, economic, and political realities of the United States.

  • Lebeau, Vicky. Childhood and Cinema. London: Reaktion, 2008.

    A historical examination of the preoccupation with visual representations of children since the 1890s, originating from the medium of still photography and proliferating in contemporary cinema. It analyzes the complex psychological effects of visualizing themes of sexuality, violence, suffering, and death in relation to children and childhood.

  • Lury, Karen. The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairy Tales. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

    Drawing on selected Japanese and American films, Lury analyzes the role of the child in cinema as a manifestation of the “other” in contrast to normative roles. Also interrogates the ethical concerns regarding the recruitment of children as actors.

  • Shary, Timothy. Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen. London: Wallflower, 2005.

    Provides a fluid, chronological assessment of the teenage presence in American films, highlighting significant themes and characters.

  • Wilson, Emma. Cinema’s Missing Children. London: Wallflower, 2003.

    A focused analysis of the theme of the missing child—lost, abused or dead—in independent and art cinema. Avoiding formulaic genres, she carefully chooses films to examine the role of the cinematic medium in working through psychological and emotional complexities and reconsidering parenthood in relation to the missing child.

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