I was really looking forward to flying for the first time with Air Portugal on a Transatlantic flight, so I could watch some Portuguese movies, which I rarely do. I was disappointed that there was only a handful available and only two looked interesting enough for me. I ended up not watching “Listen” about a Portuguese couple living in London and in danger of losing their deaf child to social services. I was not in the mood for a heart-wrenching drama, but it sure looked promising for another day. So, instead, I chose the lighter path, what promised to be a feel-good movie made for kids about kids.
With “Escola das Artes” (School of Arts) I got exactly what I was expecting. It is the story of four children sent into a liberal arts boarding school as their single mother needed to get a job after the kids’ grandfather, who supported them financially, passed away. The children’s integration into their new environment is not flawless, but they overcome the obstacle of the popular mean girl, the challenge of not being used to working as a team, opinionated new friends, lack of trust in themselves, each of them being differently talented…
There is a double standard when it comes to children’s movies. If I judge this movie against the expectation of seeing a kid’s movie it was excellent as it had it all:
- engaging story,
- multiple, relatable characters,
- character development,
- different enough setting to stand out from most kids’ life experience, but similar enough that they can emphasize,
- several learning points, aka positive messages
- fun attitude
- happy ending
- bad deeds getting punished.
However, I also feel that kids’ movies should not be judged by a lowered standard. I often observe wooden acting, predictable storylines, and oversimplified situations. I am aware that kids developmentally may need stories and people to be simpler than “grown-up” movies so I am inclined to forgive the latter two flaws this movie clearly fell into. I also know that it is rare that young actors; i.e. kids who act; have such natural talent in acting that their acting feels natural. Nevertheless here almost all the children felt like being in commedia dell’arte: their exaggerated display of emotions felt grotesque and overdone.
So one hand I enjoyed this clean, fun, simple movie that was teaching lessons I am fully aligned with, including how creativity and laughter can help to solve any tense situation and problem, and that friendship and family mean sometimes putting others ahead of your own interests and that people can surprise you in good and bad ways too. On the other hand, I was continuously annoyed at how childishly it was executed, and this time I use that word as a simplistic one. There was nothing preventing the filmmakers to make it a much better movie, with little more effort of letting or directing the child actors act more naturally and not as caricatures of themselves. Unfortunately the same applies to the adult actors in the film. Only three actors’ performances stood out as good and only one of them was a child:
- The school’s principal was a grateful role as Sofia Espírito Santo could play a creative woman whose instinct are almost never wrong and she did it with grace and spirit
- Sulking and pouting seemed to be the natural state of Matita Ferreira, who played Martha, the youngest of the four children, so she was a great choice
- My absolute favorite was Carlos Vieira, who played the quiet woods keeper’s Jacinto’s character so well, that when his big reveal, the exposure of his background story arrived his melancholy got a new level of meaning.
If you are ready to suspend the expectation of superb acting and ready to put yourself in the mindset of a child you would enjoy this cute movie as well, like I did, along with its bright colors, festive songs, and performances, and tight tempo.