I have always felt a bit out-of-step with other film lovers when I consider my feelings toward two early Steven Spielberg films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. They seem painfully didactic to me–lessons clumsily wrapped inside an entertainment. I'm on board with one of the lessons, that a thing's strangeness does not necessarily make it menacing; the idea was a welcome counter to Nixon-era paranoia. But the other lesson, which could be read as, the innocence of children is the greatest wisdom, sticks in my craw. I think it gets kids way wrong.
For me, the worst moment of both films comes in Close Encounters. A woman and her young son are inside their house when a UFO approaches outside. There are bright lights and vibrations and loud sounds. The mother is terrified, but the child is attracted to the lights, runs outside, and is carried off by the UFO.
I know that there is a point in child development when the child actively separates its identity from those of its parents, but that sort of breaking free comes for children much older than the boy in the film. In fact, in the movie the child is more oblivious of his mother than alienated from her. And that oblivion seems utterly false to me; in a strange, potentially frightening situation, children of that age will look to adults for emotional cues rather than ignore them.
This wrongheaded depiction of a child came to mind recently when I watched a very fine film that gets adult-child relations right. What Maisie Knew (as of this writing, available for streaming on Netflix and elsewhere) updates the Henry James novel to modern New York. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan play the horrible parents of six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile). When it suits them, they are affectionate toward the girl; but mostly they are tied up in bitterness toward one another. Maisie loves her parents but learns that she must entrust herself to other adults as well. There is a point in the film when Maisie, abandoned by her parents, stands curbside next to a man she barely knows (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender friend of her mother's. Maisie automatically reaches up to take the hand of this unfamiliar adult. That little gesture is an emotionally searing moment in the movie, and it contains more truth about children than either of the Spielberg films.