Classic Films of Children Dealing with Trauma

Carla Seaquist
9 min readMay 1, 2023


Ukrainian children abducted by invading Russian soldiers, by the busloads, in abrogation of the rules of war and simple humanity. American children shot dead in their schools by crazies exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms, also to kill. Children the world over molested by members of the clergy in whom they placed their faith and trust.

It’s not a pretty picture; in fact, it is a hideous one. But that picture — all the above crimes — is in continuous loop now, reflecting a world gone hideously wrong and (let’s admit it) sinful. I only hope people are not getting used to the desecration of children.

So distressed am I about Ukrainian children being abducted by Russian soldiers (subject of my last commentary) — the number is 100,000 children at last count — that it naturally carries over into further pondering. Films are perfect vessels for pondering, for feeling deeper and more specifically, for conjuring a response. Especially films of the classic period, from the 1930s into the ’60s, when normal characters were the norm — when norms still existed; when authenticity reigned over attitude; and, as to filmmaking, when the focus was clear and in service of the story, not whiz-bang performative.

Following are films with children as the central character, who, when the world comes down hard on them, deal (or not). In the first film, war is the agent of trauma, but in all the others, it is the adults in the children’s lives who, knowingly or not, inflict the damage and do little to aid the child, forcing the child to deal. These films are deeply humanist in the classic sense: defining humanity upward, not downward to pathology or dysfunction. Some films I reviewed before and repost here. That a film comes up more than once may be a sign it is a classic.

“Germany Year Zero”: Italian, 1948, dir. Roberto Rossellini

Given the hideousness of children besieged by gun violence and sexual molestation, and specifically projecting from the abducted Ukrainian children, I begin with the most dire of this listing: Roberto Rossellini’s heartbreaking film about a 12-year-old boy (pictured above), alone but for a sick father, wandering the ruins of post-World War II Berlin. It may be a spoiler to reveal that the boy ultimately commits suicide. But this fate, as the viewer soon comes to feel, is baked into the very reality of war, especially on the losing side. Here the “byproducts” of losing — entrapment in the black market, being menaced by an unreconstructed Nazi — do the boy in. (He is movingly played by Edmund Moeschke.) One must imagine abducted Ukrainian children, even if eventually returned home to their parents, will be suicides, or engage in suicide ideation. Caught on the wrong side of the Second World War, the director, Italian, did for Germany what he did for its Axis partner with “Rome Open City”: show “caught” humanity in wartime. Now, pray Ukraine wins.

“The Children Are Watching Us”: Italian, 1943; dir. Vittorio De Sica

(From my HuffPost review, 2013, written after the Newtown school massacre): This tragedy, with redemption hinted at the end, flows from parental irresponsibility. Prico’s mother runs off with her lover, abandoning her little boy. The father, despairing, farms the boy out to relatives, who fail him too; finally, after putting Prico in the care of priests, the father commits suicide. The viewer, all too aware of today’s predatory clergy, will brace, but here the priest acts benevolently: He reunites boy and mother. What Prico does in that final moment elevates. This film is the director’s response to what he saw as Italy’s materialism, even in war. Earlier, watching this film after Newtown, a detail mid-film leapt out: When Prico (played by Luciano De Ambrosis) runs away, to get back to papa, at the train station he asks directions of a grandmotherly lady — who sticks to her reading rather than help him! It’s damning judgment of a selfish society. As I wrote earlier: “[I]f we fail our children further, so grievously have we harmed and handicapped them, that I foresee generational conflict in the not-so-distant future, when they might break with us. In truth, if they did, they’d be rebels with very good cause. The children are watching us.”

“The Bicycle Thief”: Italian, 1949; dir. Vittorio De Sica

(From my HuffPost review, 2016): Earlier, I focused on the father in this film, who as an unemployed worker has just landed a job as poster-hanger, only to be visited by calamity signaled in the film’s title: His bicycle, crucial to his new job, is stolen. Here I will focus on his child. “While the film tracks the man’s increasingly desperate search around the infinitude of Rome, his little son, Bruno, is at his side throughout, sharing the panic and, wise beyond his years, offering solace. Sadly, he witnesses his father’s final desperate act: stealing a bicycle himself — and getting caught. The utter humiliation of father and son is hard to watch.” What is elevating: to see little Bruno, even sitting on the curb crushed in despair, seeming to grow in moral stature. Also moving is to see his profound communion with his father, even as the father in his desperation seems to move beyond reach. Both leads are non-actors; the boy, played by Enzo Staiola, has an especially expressive face, that of a little man. Ever the humanist, De Sica, director of both this film and “The Children Are Watching Us,” here created what is universally considered a cinematic masterpiece.

“The Spanish Gardener”: English, 1956; dir. Philip Leacock

This little-known film packs its own power: the power of kindness. Young Nicholas is lost in his own household, because his father is lost: A consular official stymied in his quest for advancement and abandoned by his wife for no apparent reason, the father is sunk in bitterness, unable to see his own boy has been abandoned, too. Nicholas, serious and intelligent, is seriously at sea. Emotionally desiccated, he gravitates toward warmth, here provided by Jose, a local laborer who tends the household’s garden. Played by Dirk Bogarde in natural and not flamboyant key, Jose soon becomes the boy’s tent-pole, by listening to him, seeing him, enlisting his assistance in the garden. It may be cliché to say Nicholas blooms from near-nothing into a human being under the gardener’s care, but it works. In fact, it works so well that the growing bond between son and gardener pierces the father’s gloom, causing a crisis. Bogarde is superb as Jose. Jon Whiteley astonishes as Nicholas. Michael Hordern ably conveys the father’s pain and humanity. The film is based on a novel by A.J. Cronin, who always set his characters’ humanity on a high plane (see: “The Citadel”). Here he makes kindness a heroic quality, a quality sadly missing in today’s world.

“The Apu Trilogy”: Indian, 1955–59; dir. Satyajit Ray

(From my Medium review, 2018): It takes a trilogy to render the comprehensive tale of beleaguered and impoverished youth grown into sensitive manhood. But at a time when so much trauma is reported among all youth, this tale, carried on the tiny shoulders of a Bengali boy named Apu (played by Subir Banerjee), inspires. As I wrote earlier: “In Part One, ‘Pather Panchali,’ the young Apu discovers the world through three strong women — his mother, sister, and aunt. In Part Two, ‘Aparajito,’ the family suffers both devastating loss — the death of the father, a dreamer — but also the promise held out by education, as young Apu proves an apt pupil. In Part Three, ‘Apur Sandar’ (my favorite), Apu, now in his twenties (played by Soumitra Chatterjee), married, and aspiring to become a writer, suffers a double blow — the deaths of his mother, from whom he had grown apart, and his wife, whom he adored. After great struggle, he does the soul-work enabling him to carry on.” Ray debuted with this trilogy, landing financing for parts two and three after Part One was named Best Human Document at the Cannes film festival. The cast was non-professional, except for the aunt; score was composed by then-unknown Ravi Shankar. This great work’s beating heart is little Apu; that heart carries him through.

“The Night of the Hunter”: American, 1955; dir. Charles Laughton

(From my HuffPost review, 2013): Earlier, in surveying the few genuine heroines in film, I focused on the grandmotherly stand-in, played by Lillian Gish, who rescues the children chased by a demonic preacher, played by Robert Mitchum. Here I focus on the children: John (played by Billy Chapin) and his little sister Pearl (played by Sally Jane Bruce). The preacher is in pursuit of his former cellmate’s cash, whose hiding-place the cellmate took to his execution. After marrying the cellmate’s widow (Shelley Winters), then murdering her, the preacher turns on her children, who take the cash and run off (not a spoiler: We know the money is stuffed in Pearl’s doll). I chose this film for the children’s harrowing odyssey: Seen from a child’s point of view, shadows loom larger; shorter legs, slogging through woods, are no match against an adult’s; and no villain menaced like Mitchum. It is good to see the children defy fear and find strength in unity; and to see John grow into protector. Fortuitously, they fetch up at widow Cooper’s, who, having lost the love of her own son, takes them in and, better yet, she protects them, facing down the preacher. Would that Charles Laughton, notable character actor, directed more such films. This one speaks now: As the widow says, it’s “a plague time for the little ones.”

“The Go-Between”: English, 1971; dir. Joseph Losey

This film portrays the damage done to a child caught up in adult games. Twelve-year-old Leo (played by Dominic Guard) is guest at his rich friend’s estate. He becomes enchanted by his friend’s older sister Marian (Julie Christie) who, though engaged to a viscount, is carrying on an affair with a tenant farmer (Alan Bates). Enlisted as go-between carrying messages between Marian and her lover, Leo is overcome by doings he has no ability to manage. It cannot end well, and doesn’t; in extended close-ups, we see him disintegrate. And the tragedy extends: Fifty years later, Leo, a scarred shell, accedes to the clueless Marian’s request that he act as go-between, once again, to the estranged grandson of the son she had by the farmer. Some “adults” never learn! I chose this film to give the lie to the self-serving saw that children are resilient. Some indeed are resilient, learning from their trauma and creating something greater. But, tragically, some children are not. The novel by L.P. Hartley, on which this film is based, famously begins: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Maybe customs are different, but trauma is not.

These stories, I hope, will specially register at a time when the sacred mantle of childhood seems to have vanished. The children in these films are little — none are in their teens, none are “young adults.” Ideally, girls would feature more frequently as protagonists; this listing is weighted almost solely with boys (an unconscious bias of their male directors?). But with recent studies showing girls experiencing record levels of trauma, they deserve sympathetic portrayal in films to come.

As films can do, with their moving images, a character’s humanity can be instantly read. And with little children at a film’s center, their innate innocence and moral being comes through so movingly. Likewise, in such film, what the adults in a child’s life do — or more damningly, don’t do — registers tellingly as cause-and-effect, as the prime force shaping a child’s life for good or ill. And of course, most telling of all forces is war — which brings us back to the abductions, in plain view, of Ukrainian children by the Russian invaders. Kids are told to mind their manners. The world needs to mind its children.



Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost.