United States, 1953
Directed by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, and Ruth Orkin
With Richie Andrusco (Joey), Richard Brewster (Lennie), Winifred Cushing (the mother), Jay Williams (the pony ride man)
To the big brother the little kid is a bore, always pestering him, wishing to take part to games only the big one and his fellow kids of a New York neighborhood can truly enjoy. When their mother must rush to pay a visit to her sick mother and orders Lennie to look after Joey for the next 24 hours, keeping the big brother from joining his mates to have fun in Coney Island, Lennie is incensed and poor Joey becomes a bane.
To get rid of him Lennie’s friends use a rifle and a tour on a landfill: they make Joey believe he has killed his brother and press him to run away. The frightened little boy – he seems to be 6 at most, at some three to four years younger than the others kids featured by this 81-minute movie – does walk away, scared to death every time he spots a cop. He manages to come back to his little family’s apartment, takes some money and goes to a train station to board a train set to Coney Island. His next 24 hours would be the restless and thrilling exploration of that huge amusement park summertime fills with throngs of sun-loving and fun-seeking folks, most of them kids or teenagers. Joey spends all his money but finds a way to earn some, by picking up empty glass bottles, which allows him to pay for the sideshow he digs the most: a pony ride circuit, fulfilling his desire to ride horses and to stick around them. The man in charge of the pony ride befriends him and eventually gets in touch with a worried Lennie who has fallen out with his mischievous pals. Both brothers meet again.
The narrative is as thin as that – and the way it is shot can definitely lacks drama: the time Joey spends walking desultorily and playing repetitively across Coney Island seems fairly elongated and sometimes the film is just dull. But the way it is shot is not always boring, far from it: what the 35 mm camera strapped to the body of the cameraman in the most ingenious way, barely noticeable by the public, captures gives this kid story an incredible naturalistic, rough, immediate edge setting it right away apart from many productions of the US cinema, even when they claim to be independent. The film forfeits any attempt at being elegant and predictable: the camera follows Joey endlessly, roving around the little boy as he toys with stuff or just gawks at whatever stuns him, or thrills him, carefully staying at his eye level, and as a consequence the world gets a fresh look in cinematic terms – the images do reflect the point of view and the experience of a child, and more precisely of a waif by accident.
The film’s realistic, lively, sometimes gritty, sometimes just beautiful nature is bolstered by the spontaneous, awkward manners of the cast: they are non-professional the camera does not make shy but rather keeps us genuine. This is not Shirley Temple: this is about unaffected and unassuming folks playing by the rules hastily contrived by a small bunch of artists to treat an entertaining film story in a truthful and candid manner that challenges the audience and yet feels far more compelling and charming than what the audience is used to pay for.
Made on a fairly shoestring budget and by tinkering with the techniques (that innovative camera plus the big work of recreating every sound after the shooting, as this camera could not record sound), this small feature feels like a milestone, at least in the United States, as it points to other ways of coping with characters and pictures, in a far more dynamic and naturalistic style feeding on audacity, tenacity, and poverty. The effort did not get unnoticed, far from it: the film was one of the six awarded a silver Lion at the Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica di Venezia (and thus put on the same footing as Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” or Mizoguchi Kenji’s “Ugetsu monogatari” or John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge” – a baffling choice by the jury presided by poet Eugenio Montale) and was the topic of texts by Les Cahiers du Cinéma (one of the main reviewers of the review would readily acknowledge the influence of “Little Fugitive” on his later work as cineaste – it was François Truffaut, the director of “Les quatre cents coups – The 400 Blows”).