Remember what it was like to live cynicism free? To approach the world with wide-eyed wonder? Watch a kid for a few hours and it may start to come back to you.
That’s what Australian documentarian Genevieve Bailey does in “I Am Eleven,” a collection of interviews with 11-year-old boys and girls from around the world.
Bailey says she wanted to make an optimistic movie, which this is; even the orphaned girls in India have cheery dispositions. But this is an overcrowded film. Don’t bother trying to keep track of the number of subjects and don’t expect to learn anything profound about the children. The documentary is largely a chronicle of short answers to straightforward questions.
Still, the sheer number of places to which Bailey traveled is impressive. At the beginning of the movie, she explains that she needed to get away but also wanted to be productive. She’s nothing if not industrious. We meet two boys who work on an elephant preserve in Thailand and an aboriginal girl in Melbourne, a pensive environmentalist in the South of France and a Muslim rapper living in Sweden. She also goes to Japan, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Morocco.
When Bailey asks the children what they would request if they could have anything, one of the orphans says she wants a house, while a boisterous American girl takes some time to mull it over before deciding that four-day weekends would be nice. Some of the subjects are surprisingly composed. Remy, the French boy, regales Bailey with his insights on the three types of love, while Grace, a precocious introvert living in the Czech Republic, says she likes everything about romance, except for “the tacky merchandise.”
But regardless of background, sophistication or home country, the kids all share a lovely sense of open-heartedness. They all talk about being part of a collective, and see the human race as a large extended family.
As far as insights are concerned, they come in a rush during the final moments of the movie. Bailey revisits the kids when they’re 12 to 15 years old, and so much has changed. The voices are deeper and the kids are taller, of course, but what’s most apparent is how quickly their hope has turned to skepticism. When Jack, who lives in Thailand, is asked at 11 what he has in common with other 11-year-olds, he responds: Everything. We all think the same way, he explains. Two years later, he says that he has nothing in common with his Facebook-obsessed classmates who drown their sorrows in loud music. “I’m nothing like my friends,” he says frankly.
His 11-year-old naivete evokes a mixture of amusement and pity; such earnestness never lasts. But does it have to die so soon?
★ ★ ½
Unrated. At West End Cinema and AMC Hoffman 22. Contains nothing objectionable. 93 minutes.