by Philip Price
There is something to be said for filmmakers who attempt to work outside the system, outside the realm of what is thought to be striving toward success in favor of what feels natural and organic and if anything is to be said for directors Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck's second narrative feature it is that it feels wholly instinctive, spontaneous and more uninhibited than anything you'll see put out by a studio this year. Beginning in the early morning of a day that seems like any other, the second of five children jumps alone on the family trampoline in nothing more than his underwear when he notices his mother’s car driving away. He chases after her for a moment before giving up, trusting that she'll be back eventually. The hook of Machoian and Ojeda-Beck's “God Bless the Child” though is that the audience doesn't. How could a mother abandon her five children? Ranging in ages from 13 to two with the oldest also being the only girl of the bunch, the weight of the responsibility is hung on Harper. Harper not only has dealt with being her mother’s guinea pig in how to raise her own children, but now Harper must take on the role her mother seems to have so easily walked away from. We don't know it at first, distracted by all of the comic relief and small moments that ring true via the adventures of young boys, but Harper is the silent hero of the piece. Harper is the one we come to appreciate and admire and who delivers an arc that slowly creeps up on the viewer allowing the power of the film to do the same. “God Bless the Child” is very much a film made by filmmakers who seem in tune with letting the images speak for themselves. Giving the audience a suggestion of where the gamut of emotions may run and letting them decide for themselves by documenting the core characters actions not with flashy camera work or distinct directorial flourishes, but rather in the way that they remain steady, trusting in their subjects and the untaught realism they bring to this slightly devastating reality.
What is most relevant thematically here is the major idea that children are abandoned all the time, forced to look out for themselves and build survival instincts that might serve them well in the future, but are harsh to face in the midst of the present. Whether it be for something along the lines of drugs or alcohol addiction, depression, more interest in their own personal lives than the well-being of their children or simply the need to escape the constant pressures and demands children bring there seems no excuse strong enough to validate the idea of leaving ones offspring to fend for themselves. Why bring them into the world if you're not going to help them adapt to it? It was your decisions and choices that brought them here thus it is your job to love and provide for them. No matter the frustration, they will always be the innocent party. As the film plays on and more layers of the family backstory are revealed it becomes more and more apparent why the mother might have seemingly run away. Times, no doubt, when she feels she was dealt the wrong hand or received the raw end of the deal. Still, I can only imagine she feels incredibly selfish and absurd for thinking in such a way. We all need a break, I get it and I'm not here to discuss parenting skills (as I hardly know much myself) or the motivations of a character that is both non-existent yet clearly present throughout the actions of the characters. There is certainly an idea, an intended theme of abandonment that runs through “God Bless the Child,” but there are also many actions that the children take that reflect the idea there has been guidance present in their lives. When they inherently sit down for breakfast at the table together or when the three older boys give the dogs a bath it is clear to see a parental influence in these actions. Otherwise, things would begin to fall apart and yet we rarely see a crack in the family foundation.
While these themes and ideas are certainly the more important issues the film looks to highlight and provide the talking points the directors no doubt intend for you to take away from the film what is more fascinating is the fact Machoian and Ojeda-Beck were able to capture the energy and essence of this natural family dynamic in a way that feels effortless, but almost certainly was not. Given that the children in the film are all Machoian's kids it is easy to understand they may have a short-hand with one another, but to be able to focus each of their energy down into the overall goal of the film while dealing with tiny logistical details as simple as having them not look directly into the camera must have felt insurmountable at times. With Harper at the helm, we also have Elias who is eleven, Arri who is seven, Ezra who is four and Jonah reaching into his terrible twos. Machoian and Ojeda-Beck are intent on bringing out the personalities in each and in doing so it is hard to imagine that much of the film was scripted beforehand. With Machoian and his wife, Rebecca, being credited as the screenwriters here it would seem that the director likely compiled a collection of moments from what are he and his wife's typical day to day activities where he sees his children becoming their own people. This is what stands out most about the character development even more than the cutesy angle of watching little boys do hilarious and sometimes inappropriate things-we are seeing how their personalities develop, the factors that will contribute in building a person that will one day, hopefully, be able to contribute to society. It is fascinating not only in that the children never feel like actors or that their chemistry is stilted on screen, but in the way the directors allow their camera to sit back and drink it all in. Taking necessary moments in with long, single takes while other times incorporating several cuts so as to keep up with the energy of the children.
Regardless of what Machoian and Ojeda-Beck's overall intentions with the film were, what they have come away with is a piece of time in these children's lives that they will be able to refer to for the rest of their lives and draw memories from, memories they may not even actually have, but will no doubt fill their subconscious with wonder and reassure them they had the most wonderful of childhoods. After all, once you get past the speculation over what the film is trying or not trying to say about the absence of adult supervision (there is nary an adult to be seen sans a quick confrontation between Elias and a local) and how the responsibilities of being a caregiver resort to the oldest sibling there are little more than observations to be made. I rather enjoyed the film, if not more for the fact I could largely relate to the dynamics between five children being the oldest of five myself more than to the general proposition that seems somewhat forced into the equation for the purpose of having an actual premise, but still-I found myself dumbfounded at times. Even if the quick inclusion of this exposition is little more than an excuse to give the children free reign over their time, it matters little, as what audiences will take away from the film largely won't deal with the aforementioned themes and ideas, but rather in the blissful, memory making chaos that ensues when a random summer day is afforded the opportunity to become that of a myth.