Lovejoy and company

Pub date October 9, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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"Think about the children!"

That cry, most memorably a mantra for Reverend Lovejoy’s wife, Helen, on The Simpsons, encapsulates the pervasive movement to childproof American life. Parents no longer have the time, will, or ability (so they claim) to properly censor all aspects of culture their kids might be exposed to, so a rising chorus demands the government do it for them.

Yet these efforts only underline the scattershot nature of an institutional overview of today’s wide-open mediascape. The FCC heavily fines cusswords and wardrobe malfunctions on network TV, yet cable can do whatever the fuck! it pleases. Men lured via fantasy underage chat rooms into bogus real-world meetings by FBI agents can be imprisoned for crimes of intent. Meanwhile, the hugely popular Bratz empire sells trendy updates on Jodie Foster’s Taxi Driver li’l ho look to preteen girls as ersatz self-empowerment.

The closely aligned flip side of that salaciousness is the market for angelic innocence — those Keane-eyed Olsen twins tap into commingled public fascinations with child precocity, with jailbait allure and its righteous condemnation, and with women starving themselves back to a pubescent size-zero ideal. How often has such high-end childsploitation led to balanced adult life? Face it: we already think about the children way too much.

A whole worm can of child adorability, complicity, ability, and above all, parental responsibility (or lack thereof) is opened up by My Kid Could Paint That. Amir Bar-Lev’s excellent documentary starts out as a straight-up chronicle of a way-underage artistic phenomenon, until unforeseen developments suggest some sort of mass-media con job based on dreams of squeaky-clean white suburbia.

The Olmsteads of Binghamton, N.Y., are a catalog family, so wholesomely good-looking you might think they were assembled by a casting agent. They are nice too. You might expect any thirtysomething heterosexual couple this L.L. Bean–clad to be yuppies, but in their modest upstate New York burg, they get along like everybody else. Mother Laura is a dental assistant. Father Mark works at the Frito-Lay factory. And their offspring? Marla and little brother Zane are well adjusted and beyond cute. If you don’t like kids, picture a basket of golden Lab puppies or something.

Not long after she turned two, Marla insisted on joining Daddy’s off-clock pastime as an amateur artist, painting her own pictures. The attractive, oddly sophisticated-looking results were hung at home. Eventually, a friend suggested they be exhibited in his café, where they elicited actual purchase offers. Another friend, professional artist Anthony Brunelli, then proposed a mid-2004 show at his gallery. It all still seemed kind of a lark.

Then a local newspaper story leads to another — in the New York Times. Normal life ends: so-called pint-size Picasso Marla is the human-interest novelty du jour for every national magazine and TV show. Collectors bid up to $25,000 per canvas. Art critics weigh in and are, for the most part, as impressed as they are nonplussed. Both senior Olmsteads apparently take pains not to pressure Marla toward more art making or media glare than her four-year-old temperament desires. (They also try not to make her older brother feel any less special, though a couple of moments in this movie make you think he has years of therapy ahead.) Yet Mark Olmstead does seem eager to seize the moment. Is this the art-world entrée he’d always wanted for himself?

That question becomes a matter of discomfiting public conjecture once something very bad happens. The Sunday-evening staple 60 Minutes — having stationed a surveillance camera in the Olmsteads’ home (with their permission) to observe Marla’s artistic process — airs a segment that strongly implies the whole child-genius thing is a fraud. Footage is shown with Mark rather aggressively directing Marla’s painting. The tide turns: collectors froth at the mouth, journalists and critics harrumph, hate mail arrives in bulk, and the Olmsteads feel shunned in their own community. They take steps at vindication, but things only get more complicated.

If you watch many documentaries these days, you’re sick of filmmakers putting their mugs and ruminations on camera, whether germane to the subject or not. But there’s a real intensity to Ben-Levy’s soul-searching in My Kid Could Paint That, as he weighs emotional attachment to the Olmsteads — and their expectation of loyalty — against his own nagging doubts and the golden prospect of a vérité exposé.

My Kid Could Paint That provokes on numerous levels. Regardless of whether she’s all that or not, can so much scrutiny — cynical or flattering — be good for Marla? As the title suggests, Ben-Levy’s film also examines deep populist hostility toward abstract (as opposed to traditional representational) art. Perhaps the only question this fascinating documentary doesn’t address is one that lands between artistic-value and cult-of-personality terrains. If Marla Olmstead turns out not to be sole creator of these paintings, why are they suddenly worth less? The oil canvases are vividly colored, complex, often ravishing. I’d be thrilled to have a print, let alone an original.

The creepiest folks in My Kid Could Paint That are those whose art appreciation gets turned off the moment it occurs they’ve enjoyed something possibly not created by an adorable, towheaded child. They’ve invested so much in the prodigy image they can’t see the still-beautiful product that remains. They are pederasts of an acceptable sort — people who only wuv something as long as it comes from a certifiably "pure" source. Innocence-fetishizing Mrs. Lovejoys are always the first to condemn adults who might well be damaged former prodigies themselves. It’s a microcosm of the hypocrisy that raises hysteria over mythically elevated levels of child sexual abuse, while caring little about those myriad ill-raised kids who end up welfare mothers or otherwise inconvenient adults.


Opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters