So often our focus on childhood is rose-tinted, coloured by the belief that our childhoods were a simple time, devoid of worry. In this candy-coloured bubble of nostalgia, the work of writer and director Lynne Ramsay is striking. Ramsay has gained fame and critical acclaim for many of her feature length films, including We Need to Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here. However, to appreciate her depiction of childhood, watch Small Deaths – Ramsay’s graduation short film, which won her the Prix du Jury at Cannes in 1996.
This short, running for just eleven minutes, is divided into three moments focusing on experiences of loss in the life of a young girl. The dialogue is infrequent and the plot, if you can call it that, is unclear. Ramsay studied art at Napier College and this is clear in her projects which often focus on image and aesthetic. In Small Deaths, the Camera focuses unflinchingly on the face of a young girl growing up in a Glasgow housing project. In the middle of the tripartite structure the girl watches a cow, hit with a rock by local children, dying. The camera focuses on the girl’s eyes as she takes in the scene in front of her. The little girl watches death and, as an audience, you squirm. The audience, like the girl, are forced to confront the complexities and imperfections of childhood.
Traditional coming-of-age films perpetuate the false idea that our childhoods are carefree periods from which we come of age in one, feature film length, metamorphosis. Ramsay’s frequent exploration of childhood in conjunction with the macabre and the complicated reminds us this is not the truth. The idea that ‘childhood’ is a discreet, different time in our lives, is false. There probably never was a time when we possessed perfect innocence and there is no single, liminal time in which we magically come of age. Instead Ramsay suggests that we are changed by the realities of life that confront us no matter our age.
The flipside of childhood is of course parenthood. This too is questioned by Ramsay’s simultaneously poetic and unforgiving camera, most notably in her film We Need to Talk About Kevin. The film explores the predicament of Eva, a woman whose son Kevin has committed a school massacre. What happens, the film asks, when bad children have good parents? Or maybe ‘good parents’ never existed to begin with. Although cinema is fascinated by the effect of parenting on children, few films ever stop to assess the effect children have on parents.
Ramsay’s latest film, You Were Never Really Here, again examines the darker side of childhood. The film surrounds a hitman who is paid to rescue young girls from sexual exploitation. The gripping narrative is interspersed with horrifying flashbacks from his childhood for which we have little context. Similarly, the girl he is determined to save hasn’t had a childhood, or at least the one we are constantly sold, as she is passed around by different powerful men from a very early age.
Ramsay reminds us that childhood is not just the cause of nostalgia but the root of trauma. Her work asks us to forget the ‘Coming of Age’ trope adored by the cinema. She tries to remind us that childhood inevitably and inescapably interacts with harsh reality, bringing with it the potential for loss, cruelty, and loneliness. For this alone she should be considered one of the most important and innovative directors of our time.