The opening scenes of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs show cruel children torturing animals, Peckinpah’s point being that the ability to carry out violent actions is something innate in humanity and present even in children. A range of paedophobic horror films, particularly The Innocents, represent the loss of a child’s innocence as a frightening and psychotic experience. Puberty and a burgeoning attraction to the opposite sex is often represented in cinema as a challenging and sometimes murderous time – Heavenly Creatures, The Scouting Book For Boys, this year’s The Sea. All Good Children is pretty much a heterosexual version of Heavenly Creatures – aside from some slight differences – and it adds very little.
Dara and Eoin (Jack Gleeson and David Brazil) move to France following the apparent suicide of their mother to live with their aunt Valerie (Laura Persain). Dara soon comes across an English family who live not far away and almost immediately falls under the spell of Bella (Imogen Jones), the young daughter of Julian and Lynne (David Wilmot and Kate Duchêne). They have a brief and idyllic summer romance. When their relationship becomes too aggressive, they are forced apart and Dara is not able to adjust to life without Bella.
Writer-director Alicia Duffy has a fondness for moody arthouse aesthetics and the entire film has been made with that slightly distanced, elliptical tone that has become so familiar now in art films about love and sex. There is probably a bit of a Haneke influence, though without the thematic and intellectual rigour of, say, Benny’s Video – Haneke’s own killer kid film. The early scenes of Dara and Bella’s flourishing relationship are all bright sunshine and Malickian sequences of running through grass and dancing barefoot in forests, though played less for romance since it is unmistakably telegraphed that things will soon turn sinister. By the time a heartbroken Dara begins his transition from innocent kid to nut job, the colour scheme has become muted. Though the distanced camerawork remains throughout, we now see dark cave-like dwellings and rotting animals instead of big, open spaces and sunlight.
The film is both dated and redundant – with a very Freudian view of the romance (and a scene involving blood that recalls Andrea Arnold’s films, particularly both Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights) and a storyline that recalls too many other ‘love is confusing for children and might even be dangerous’ films as well as her own short film The Most Beautiful Man in the World.
The performances from the children are quite good, though Imogen Jones suffers from a necessarily underwritten part as the unknowable object of Dara’s attraction. Jack Gleeson (soon to become infamous for playing King Joffrey in the overrated Game of Thrones series) is very good and holds the film together better than the script or the direction. The parents are all practically silent – see also, again, The Most Beautiful Man in the World. Presumably, Duffy is making the point that parents are becoming more detached from their children and that the unfortunate events in All Good Children are due as much to neglect as puberty. As a result, David Wilmot, as well as Persain and Duchêne, is left with little else to do but offer a restrained, quiet performance and is rather forgettable as a result. Apart from Dara, no one in the film seems to be particularly human.
Just like Duffy’s 2002 short The Most Beautiful Man in the World, All Good Children is a film about the difficulties of growing up, particularly in terms of experiencing emotions that one cannot understand, but it is so distanced and humourless and so self-consciously minimalist and arty that it never really makes you want to care. And by the time Dara goes on his violent rampage towards the end of the film, it feels merely unbelievable. As a feature film debut, it is well put together but it doesn’t seem, on this evidence, that Alicia Duffy has a particularly original voice.