As the debate about violence on television swirls about us, don’t be alarmed by what you’ve read, seen and heard about Little Criminals. Yes, the made-for-CBC-TV, shot-in-Vancouver movie is shocking. And though director Stephen Surjik and writer Dennis Foon have cleverly steered clear of displays of graphic violence, Little Criminals is probably the most disturbing TV drama—because of the indirect violence it suggests—since the inflammatory NFB/CBC-TV co-production The Boys of St. Vincent, several years ago.
There’s not a single scene you could say was gratuitously violent, nothing that federal broadcasting czar and self-appointed protector of family values Keith Spicer—the V-Chip champion—could claim as a breach of Canadian TV content codes. Yet Little Criminals is one of the most painful films I have ever seen, and something parents of pre-adolescent and teenage children must watch—and with their kids.
It’s about the 11-year-old leader of a gang of midget Vancouver street toughs, who, like characters from a novel that might have been co-written by Charles Dickens and Jim Thompson, wreak havoc on an unsuspecting, supposedly decent public. They loot, batter, burn. They infuriate the authorities because, as underage criminals, they can’t be prosecuted. They lie to their parents and spit at their schoolteachers—and with reason. They drink, smoke, and use drugs. They carry weapons. They get many of their signals from behavior learned from TV drama and news shows. They kill. Propelled by the beat and despair of nasty urban rock ‘n’ roll, they live in the cracks created by a socio-political system that can no longer afford them.
Kudos to Surjik and Foon, and to producer Phil Savath ( Liar, Liar) for creating a drama that is harrowing, yet which eschews the natural urge to sensationalize issues and sentimentalize characters. For most of the movie, we are encouraged to loathe and fear pug- nosed gang leader Des (14-year-old Brendan Fletcher, in his first professional role). He is, until the cause of his emotional suffering is revealed at the end of the film, an utterly repulsive, foul-mouthed thug, every parent’s worst nightmare.
Yet never do these kids move into a world adults can’t understand. Little Criminals is, in every sense, a classical tragedy about an otherwise worthy and resourceful human being whose destiny is subsumed by the neglect and dispassion of those who should love and care for him. Des is a beast, but at the last moment, as he locks himself into his elaborately decorated closet, we suddenly understand him, want to nurture him…but hope we never see him again.
Little Criminals is a remarkable piece of television. I’d hate to think what Americans might have made of it. In casting Fletcher, an untrained actor whose pug nose, mean eyes, and vicious snarl would have alienated any U.S. network producer, Surjik made a bold and smart decision. This boy is wonderful, a natural performer who understands the material intuitively (on a CBC Newsworld report Friday he admitted that violence—”making someone bleed”—in TV and movies is “cool.”)
Moreover, Surjik and Foon obviously decided this material—culled by Foon from countless interviews with youthful offenders—should have no overwhelming moral viewpoint. It’s not a story from which adults or children will find solace. Des’s partner in crime is a reasonably well-adjusted boy whose major problem is learning to get on with his benign stepfather, a kind and caring reformed alcoholic.
There’s a message there, of course, but no answers. The lesson is almost too bleak to be read aloud. But be assured: Little Criminals is relentlessly realistic, a piece of frightening, organic TV theatre that never stoops to the medium’s mid- or sub-levels, and which actually elevates television, as The Boys of St. Vincent did. CBC-TV bosses who helped it along should be proud. If not for public television—its diminishing power and mandate notwithstanding – this amazing, completely Canadian drama might never have been made.
—Gregg Quill, The Toronto Star