Boy wonder

In "A.I." Steven Spielberg gets shown up by a kid. How does Haley Joel Osment understand the movie better than its director does?

Published July 10, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Steven Spielberg's "A.I." is a movie made by a man who both rails against his gut instincts and drifts with them. The problem is that he so often rails when he should drift, and vice versa. In places, "A.I." bravely probes the darker side of the love of children -- the side that often manifests itself in ruthless possessiveness of parents -- and it's unnerving, and challenging, when it does. But in other places, Spielberg lets sentimentality leak into his picture like sloppy glue, as if he felt he needed to offset the story's often creepy ambiguities. It's not that he doesn't know what he's doing; every minute of "A.I." is masterly. It's just that as it has turned out, he's been shown up by a kid: His star, Haley Joel Osment, instinctively has a better idea of what "A.I." is about than its director does.

Whenever "A.I." wobbles -- whenever, as we're watching it, we're not sure how we ought to feel because Spielberg hasn't shown us how he feels -- Osment's face and body language point due north on the compass. That's not to say we always know where he's going with the performance. It's just that he's a clear barometer of thoughts and feelings that Spielberg sometimes winds around too vaguely and obliquely, almost as if he's afraid to face them too directly.

Osment's face sometimes has an obsidian hardness that Spielberg, in setting the tone and direction and shape of his story, just won't allow himself. Osment's performance is remarkable precisely because it's so sharply defined; frame by frame, its edges and angles and absolute certainty forge the steely challenge of "A.I.": Just how do we feel about this little boy who isn't really a little boy at all?

If it sounds absurd to suggest that a kid knows more about what's going on in a movie than its director -- or if it even sounds like an extrapolation of a dopey platitude like "Out of the mouths of babes!" or "And a little child shall lead them" -- it's important to remember that good actors save bad movies all the time. Particularly at this point in the movies' brief history (it's still a very young art form), a point when Hollywood has such wavering faith in the sophistication of movie audiences, it's a relief to be able to rely on the guarantee that no matter how bad movies get, there will always be good performances. That in this case, one of those performances should come from a child is inconsequential.

In the context of "A.I.," Osment is an actor first and a kid second. His performance is both a significant contribution to the mythology of child actors, and a testament to the almost mystical inexplicability, the sheer weirdness, of great acting among actors of any age.

If you think about it, the concept of child actors is strange to begin with. How can small people, who have so little sense of how the world works simply because they haven't been in it very long, present believable facsimiles of complicated feelings they may not yet have experienced firsthand? The answer may lie partly in the fact that kids are naturally pretty good at make-believe, and with fewer notions about how things should be, in the context of playing a character, they may be better equipped to grasp how things are.

Even more than that, though, I think the best child actors tap into something raw and elemental about acting. As helpful as training and experience can be in shaping an actor's sensibility and skills, even in large doses they can't make a mediocre actor into a great one. The X factor in great acting, the thing that allows us to connect with an actor to the point where we understand what it's like to be inside his or her skin, is intuition. And intuition is a well that children can tap into just as readily as adults can. They're sometimes even better. Good performances from kids can often be exhilarating and touching at the same time: There's always the sense that they're doing the kind of hard and dirty work that only grown-ups should do, pushing themselves to messy, frayed emotional limits while their pals are still preoccupied with dolls and trucks.

Among child performers, it's crucial to make the distinction between actors and muggers. Muggers -- in the sense both of pulling faces and making off with the goods even when they haven't earned the privilege -- include Macaulay Culkin in the "Home Alone" movies, more a puppet personality than an actor; unbearably wide-eyed moppet Justin Henry in "Kramer vs. Kramer"; and grand doyenne Shirley Temple, who, poor girl, worked like a show horse to play nothing more than a cute rubber dolly for most of her career. Not all kids are instinctively good actors, but in some cases it's bad direction more than anything that undermines them: In "Kramer vs. Kramer," Robert Benton has clearly directed Henry to be cute as a button. Instructed to follow a misguided director's idea of what a darling child should be, he becomes a miniature monster, largely through no fault of his own.

But then there are the child actors who, through some miraculous mix of knowing just what to do and having the good luck to work with directors who let them do it, cut to the heart of what terrific acting can mean. For example, Margaret O'Brien as the eccentrically adult little sister in "Meet Me in St. Louis"; Jean-Pierre Leaud in "The 400 Blows"; the wily and appealing Mickey Rooney, particularly in the Andy Hardy series of movies; Enzo Staiola in "The Bicycle Thief"; and Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet." More recent examples are Henry Thomas in "E.T."; Kelly Reno in "The Black Stallion"; Sam Boult in "Hollow Reed"; Mara Wilson in "Matilda"; Anna Paquin in "Fly Away Home" (but not in "The Piano," the sulky, strained performance that won her an Academy Award); and Osment, first in "The Sixth Sense" and now in "A.I."

Osment's performance in "The Sixth Sense" is a marvel for several reasons, not the least of which is that it's about the only thing about the movie that doesn't seem awkwardly contorted or contrived in the service of the story's surprise ending. With his almost unnerving directness, Osment plays a kid who has closed himself off to the world -- yet he's almost painfully open to us. He pulls off the difficult task of making a recessive character achingly sympathetic, without resorting to jerking tears from us.

Osment gives a very different performance in the futuristic "A.I.," one that's even more multilayered and complex. David, the robot boy, is plunked into a family only to be rejected by it, which sets off a chain of surprisingly human responses and motivations in him. In playing the part, Osment boldly treads a line that many seasoned grown-up actors can't bear to walk: He plays a character that we can't completely like.

In his early scenes, Osment plays something more like a mechanical toy than even a fake boy. When he arrives at the home of his new parents, played by Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor, he's a blank-eyed changeling who looks from one to the other with placid, half-amused, preprogrammed regard, as he stands at attention holding his folded pj's: "Would you like me to go to bed now?" he asks with cheerful blandness. The unspoken signal he transmits is that he's so separate from them that he's superior to them. No wonder they have trouble warming up to him, particularly O'Connor. She's still grieving for her own child, who has been cryogenically frozen in the hopes that a cure can be found for his otherwise fatal disease.

But O'Connor, half coming to like him and half just getting used to having him around the house (possibly a metaphor for the way new parents feel about their children), decides to follow the manufacturer's instructions for "imprinting" David, for making him look only to her for love, attention and motherly care.

As she recites the formula, the look in David's eyes shifts perceptibly from prefab respectful regard to molten, flowing affection. His stance changes: He's no longer a Tron who looks ready to rule the world in his Underoos, but a boy who looks as if he might bleed if you cut him. In the flutter of an eyelash, his shoulders become rounder, his neck relaxes into soft curves. As of that instant, he's no longer conducting a business exchange with this woman who is supposed to be his mother, at least, not in the sense that it was originally programmed into him. Suddenly, all the rules have changed; human feelings are his for the taking. And because he's a machine and not a real child, he's free to do the old bartering routine of "love me and I'll love you back" with impunity. He has all the makings of a monster, but Osment lets you forget that time and time again -- only to remind you just at the moments you're most ready to accept his humanity.

In that regard at least, Spielberg and Osment made "A.I." hand-in-hand. And Spielberg deserves credit both for burrowing into that dark view of childhood as deeply as he does and also for drawing such a nuanced performance out of Osment -- or, at least, for locking into the innate brilliance of that performance and generously allowing it to flourish, even in the midst of his own sometimes muddled vision. Spielberg's intent often seems so much murkier than Osment's. I never want a director to tell me how to feel, but I have to have some sense of how he feels about what he's showing me. In the early family scenes, after Robards and O'Connor's son has returned, miraculously healed, we see David "suffering" at the hands of a family that can't bring themselves to love him. It's the first instance in the movie where it's clear Spielberg is playing us, and his constant plucking becomes tiresome.

Later, when his mother abandons him in a fairy-tale forest, alone with his talking teddy bear, he calls out for her, and the effect is wrenching even though we know he's a robot: Our eyes and ears tell us this is a live boy in anguish. How are we supposed to respond? We've already seen some of his possessiveness and ruthlessness, but we also know that he's personable, well-mannered and principled, and most important we've seen evidence of his all-too-human frailty. At that point in the movie, we can't know how we're supposed to feel about that boy in the woods; we're just flying on blind faith that we'll figure it out by the end, and a filmmaker as skillful as Spielberg should surely be able to get us there.

But Spielberg sends us far too many conflicting signals along the way, and the biggest and clumsiest one comes at the end of the movie, a patched-on conclusion that's presented as cheerful instead of moodily mixed.

If you haven't yet seen the movie, you might not want to read further.

Little David finally gets just what he's always wanted, the love of his mother, and he has it all to himself -- but just for one day. Instead of presenting David's victory as a creepy mixed triumph, Spielberg makes it a warm testament to the power of the wishful thinking of childhood. It's the kind of ending that's so pat it makes you wonder if any complex feelings you'd had previously were simply your own stupid mistake.

The key, though, to realizing that you haven't been had is in Osment's face. Osment draws sympathy out of us just when we want least to give it. Throughout the movie, he's so single-minded in his quest for the Blue Fairy, the Pinocchio character who, he believes, has the power to turn him into a real live boy (the only kind of boy his mother could love), that we begin to see him as a samurai warrior in Toughskins. There's dreaminess in Osment's eyes and wistfulness in his voice when he speaks of that Blue Fairy, but he never lets us lose sight of that undercurrent of resolve that's more guerilla than fairytale hero: He's gonna track her down to the ends of the earth to get what he wants.

And yet, when he finally finds her, nestled deep in an underwater kingdom, all the conflicted feelings you've had for him converge into a meaningful, if not fully resolved, whole: He literally winds down as he gazes upon her, transfixed. She's given his "life" meaning and ended it at the same time. The look on Osment's face is not stupidly moony but almost matter-of-factly blissful, and you feel it's exactly the appropriate response to finding the being he's sought so avidly -- especially considering that she's so heartbreakingly fairytale beautiful, standing there still and quiet amongst the gently waving seaweed.

That's the movie's natural ending, but Spielberg doesn't honor us by giving it to us. He needs another 20 minutes to feed us some extra folderol about humanity lost and regained. But no matter how wobbly Spielberg's vision is, Osment always steers us true: His is an unaplogetically complex performance in a movie that's otherwise afraid to be too complex.

Osment succeeds in showing us that the world is a vast forest of emotional possibilities and choices; he wins our sympathy, even if not our trust, when we realize that, armed with chips and wires instead of blood and brain cells, he's much less ably equipped to deal with that forest than we are.

It's the kind of performance any actor should be glad to have given just once in a career. And beyond that, it shimmers with the bittersweet evanescence that graces all good performances by child actors. In two or three years' time Osment, who is now 13, will no longer be a child. Some childhood acting careers don't outlive the actor's cuteness, and it remains to be seen what will become of Osment. But in "A.I." he shows us so many conflicting corners of childhood that it's hard to know how, as a child actor, he could possibly top it. There's nothing left for him to do but grow up, and with godspeed. With any luck, this won't be the best performance he ever gives. But as a farewell for an actor's preadolescent years, it's a hell of a way to go.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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