There is a pronounced measure of knowing humor in Allan King’s labeling of 1972’s Come on Children as one of his “actuality dramas.” King preferred the term over “documentary film,” perhaps in some part because it suggests an identification with deliberately constructed fictional narratives the public generally perceives as cinema’s dominant form. By coining his own phrase, King draws attention to the divide between fiction and nonfiction film-making. There is “drama” everywhere, King suggests, often in the last place one would think to look: wherever he’s standing.
And so it goes with Come on Children, a resolutely quiet but undoubtedly entertaining film set on a farm in Canada, King’s country of origin, and starring a “cast” of his fellow citizens. The premise, outlined in the text that opens the film, is that ten teenagers–five girls, five boys, ages thirteen through nineteen–live on a farm together without interference from societal strictures (parents, teachers, etc.). It seems ripe for shameless exploitation; one immediately envisions a relentlessly high-tension situation with intimations of Lord of the Flies. But King refuses to manipulate the proceedings to such sensationalistic ends. He is content to let his cameras bask in the mundane, which ultimately gives the audience a greater familiarity with his young subjects. The film revolves around the knowledge a person can glean about another by simply listening to the conversations that don’t hold any weight, at least not on the surface.
There are a few “heated” moments, such as the spat that arises as the result of one boy’s immature decision to make a huge mess in the kitchen for no apparent reason (his attempt to somewhat rationalize his actions is surprisingly eerie). Mostly, though, the kids get stoned, hang out and talk about whatever. It’s not like they have any real issues to worry about regarding their stay on the farm. (Though one girl is taken to the hospital when it comes time to have her baby! I was curious to know more about how she argued for her inclusion in this “experiment” so close to her due date.) Despite not having any direct interaction with the kids, the crew doesn’t downplay its presence. And how could they, without this becoming a hidden-camera affair? There is even a family visitation day, which provides for one of the more blatant confrontations, in this case between Aleksandar Živojinović (another surprise: that’s a young Alex Lifeson of Rush!) and his parents. Sure, an attempt to capture the kids in some desperate struggle for survival as their learned social behaviors disintegrate is a stretch by anyone’s standards, but at least King avoids forcing any overwrought dramatics on the group, as would be the norm on any number of today’s reality shows–lots of shrieking with little substance.
However, King wisely doesn’t try to divide screen time evenly between his subjects, instead focusing on the clearly charismatic ones while relegating the others to decidedly tertiary roles. Tellingly, the kids who draw King’s attention most often are the ones who are constantly expressing themselves creatively. For instance, John Hamilton, one of the group’s youngest and most gregarious members, treats his peers to impressive performances of songs strummed on his guitar; he even introduces the cast with a spot-on Dylan parody (his improvised take on one girl: “She’s horny as hell. She’s got good boobs.”). Hamilton is a natural entertainer, constantly joking around, but King also allows us a considerably more personal look, as the young man relates his struggles with substance abuse.
Hamilton often speaks with a loose enthusiasm, barely pausing to collect his thoughts. King’s film may not move at such a breakneck pace, but he does take a similarly scattered approach to his subjects, which generates its own excitement in that the filmmakers have little clue as to what the kids might reveal about each other but are no less intrigued by the great potential for unexpected “drama.” King understands: that’s life.