The stories we tell ourselves shape how we view the world. Sometimes the narrating voice is our own, unable to pull us up out of a self-defeating dive; other times, the voice is someone else’s, taking advantage of our vulnerability to be used against us. The danger to ourselves increases exponentially when we’re a child or young adult as we’re far more susceptible to mistreatment and abuse. Looking at the darker aspects of society is director Melody C. Miller’s (Ruth Weiss: the Beat Goddess) 2018 documentary California’s Forgotten Children, a frequently hard to watch guided tour of the torment that goes on, often right under our noses. Utilizing a mixture of survivor interviews, nationally-sourced data, on-the-ground footage, and actor reenactments, Miller brings to light hard truths that impact children across the world through the targeted lens of the wealthiest state in the United States of America. In doing so, a question forms: if it can happen here where affluence is high, what about where it’s the lowest?
Miller pulls few punches in the first half of the documentary: the testimony from survivors is graphic, the data from sources like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is chilling, and the reenactments only solidify what your imagination conjures. Thanks to a warning at the top of the documentary that tells the viewers what to expect in terms of how the documentary will function, we’ve got a sense of what to brace for, and yet the wind is still knocked right out of you. Especially as the examples of abuse range from child trafficking involving runaways or foster kids to older teens in the LGBTQA+ community being ripped off the street to college kids being taken advantage of, the stories grow in overwhelming power as each one is laid atop the other, a stack of community failures. This is a positive in the sense that viewers will feel the emotional intent, the sincerity and seriousness of the topic, rather than focus on the detached data (of which, there is a great deal). Smartly, Miller spaces out the text-based data in between either testimony or expert-based interviews so that a greater story forms beyond the California border. It would be easy for an audience to separate themselves from the subject matter by self-identifying as not living in the Sunshine State with its three major port hubs of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, excessive wealth, and long borders which create easy access to multiple states. Except what’s happening in California is happening in the rest of the country, a fact easily extrapolated from what the audience is given.
However, upon hearing testimony after testimony of abuse, a disquiet may overtake the audience to the point of wanting to disassociate entirely. In teaching public speaking, there’s a section on using appeals when giving a persuasive speech: appeals of reason (logos), appeals of authority (ethos), and appeals of emotion (pathos). One must be careful when putting these into practice in order to not tip to one side or the other out of concern of pushing the audience away. Go too far with logos, the audience may find you cold. Go too far with ethos, the audience may see your credentials fall into the “trust me, bro” category. Go too far with pathos, the audience shuts down. The prime example of this last one is the Sarah McLaughlin SPCA commercial, which immediately sent my students into a tailspin. Over nearly 10 years, I played that commercial in my classroom to the tune of 70+ students a semester, many of whom called themselves animal-lovers and yet they (a) couldn’t make it through the video and (b) only maybe 2-3 would admit to donating resources to their local animal shelter. This is anecdotal, of course, but the point is that when calls to action leave one feeling too hopeless, the calls often go unanswered. With so much at the start of Forgotten Children being as dark as it is and that carrying through for the bulk of the runtime, the ability to stay locked into the material grows harder with each passing second. This is made more difficult to endure by the reenactments, real-life or animated, as they depict some truly heartrending tales (none graphic, thankfully) in an effort to provide visual examples to go along with the stories being told. On the one hand, it’s enlightening to see the different, often gentile ways abusers get their foot in the door with potential victims, as well as to shift the image one conjures in their head of what a victim looks like, but it’s still incredibly upsetting to the point of wanting to walk away.
While difficult, if you can make it to the second half and into the final 30 minutes, the stories (comparatively) lighten and the recognition that not all of the stories come with an unhappy ending comes through. One even starts to realize that the titles given to some of the interviewees, like “Survivor Leader,” is as much in recognition of the work they do at their respective organizations as it is for having made it out of their own situations. In fact, one of the wisest things that Miller does is continually highlight the different organizations that the interviewees are a part of, making it clear just how many different groups are functioning in the U.S. in order to combat this particular issue. Though it may be easy to feel overwhelmed by what it means to hear these stories in conjunction with the need for so many, the presentation of these survivors and their work comes to feel like a beacon in the darkness.
There’s rawness to Miller’s presentation that comes in the form of both the stories themselves and a few segments which are of lesser quality than the rest. There’s also the sense that California’s Forgotten Children is compiled and presented as something to be used at workshops, conferences, and other areas in which those within the protective field can learn more and take action. That sense comes from the overuse of pathos which is likely to shut down a general audience from being able to make use of the information being provided. Should Miller sugar-coat the truth? Absolutely not, but there’s a balance to be struck in order for the audience to remain open so as to take the actions Miller wants them to take. In this case, it’s more than awareness, its involvement. Involvement with your family, with your community, with your state, and more. More than that, it’s recognizing that of those we deem vulnerable, several others who should fit into that category are often absent, indicating a potential failure on the part of parents to protect their kids. That’s a valuable lesson and one this parent will absolutely heed.
Per the film, if you see someone or know someone who is being trafficked:
- Call 911, if it is an emergency
- Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline – +1 (888) 373-7888
- Contact a local anti-trafficking agency
Available on VOD and digital February 13th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official California’s Forgotten Children website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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