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SXSW 2015: ‘God Bless the Child’ thoughtfully examines childhood and familial bonds

SXSW 2015: ‘God Bless the Child’ thoughtfully examines childhood and familial bonds

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God Bless the Child 
Written by Robert Machoian and Rebecca Graham
Directed by Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck
USA, 2015

The bonds of family hold strong in the face of extraordinary hardship. When the world around them sinks into darkness and the future appears foreboding, people cling to those they are closest to in their lives. God Bless the Child paints a dark portrait of reality for the five young siblings at its center, but with exceptional observation, the film depicts how familial bonds remain intact, even as circumstances grow dire.

Harper (Harper Graham), aged 13, has not experienced a normal childhood. As the film opens, her depressive mother – the family’s sole provider – drives off without saying when, or even if, she’s coming back, and Harper must care for her four younger brothers. It is later implied that this is not the first time the children have been abandoned. As one watches Harper act as both mother and sister to her siblings, it is hard not to recall Winter’s Bone, another American film about a girl forced to grow-up far too soon. Like that film’s protagonist, Harper is a consummate mother, always keeping a watchful eye over her brothers and never losing patience with them. So effortlessly does she take on the responsibilities of adulthood that it comes as a surprise to see her break down in tears when she’s alone in her room. Harper may wear her mask of maturity well, but she’s still just a scared child, uncertain about what will happen if her mother fails to return.

God Bless the Child has little in the way of an actual narrative structure. Most of the film involves Harper and her brothers wiling away the long summer day in their home. They instigate games, tell stories, and play practical jokes. Though their circumstances are deeply unfortunate, the characters are not saddled with some heart-rending, melodramatic storyline. Screenwriters Robert Mochoian and Rebecca Graham are more interested in presenting a portrait of childhood and detailing the particulars of sibling dynamics. The two do an uncanny job of depicting how children speak and interact with each other. Few films are able to portray juvenile relationships as organically as God Bless the Child does.

Robert-Machoian

If the rapport between the characters appears exceptionally authentic, there is an easy explanation for that: the five actors are actually siblings. Mochoian, who also co-directed the film with Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, cast his own children for the production. Though a tight budget partly precipitated their decision, Mochoian and Ojeda-Beck also wanted the central characters to have a level of intimacy with each other, which may not have been reached had non-siblings been hired to play the parts. Ultimately, the choice paid off. The Graham quintet may not be impeccable at acting, but the children have a natural connection with each other as well as the camera. Each performance is devoid of pretense. These children behave like children, an accomplishment that is much harder to achieve in cinema than people think.

In addition to the artless performances, God Bless the Child displays a lack of artifice in a number of other ways. Most shots are composed as long takes, with the camera acting as a removed observer. There is an absence of artificial lighting in the interior scenes, causing the family’s home to appear gloomy and inhospitable. These stylistic choices contribute to the slice-of-life atmosphere fostered by Graham and Mochoian’s screenplay. At times, God Bless the Child feels like a documentary. It probes into the troubled world of these siblings, carefully observing their interactions as well as the familial ties that bind them together.

— Jacob Carter

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