SCREENED AT THE 2006 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: Little Autumn lives a joyful life and her smile is contagious. Sheís happier than most of us Ė and yet during her three years on this Earth sheís had enough hard knocks to fill an entire lifetime.Her motherís in jail, soon to be released Ė but she might get tossed back behind bars for several years after an upcoming trial. Autumnís father is out of the picture too, so her grandmother cares for the young girl and a handful of other kids (their relations unclear), while suffering from diabetes and an almost paralyzing obesity. Thereís no visible breadwinner in this household, except for a 14-yr-old boy who offers to sell drugs for the family. Medical bills and a bunch of mouths to feed make keeping the lights on tough and Autumn and her family are even evicted from their home at one point.
Viewers witness all of this through the cameras of directors Paola Mendoza and Gabriele Noble. A modest original score, a bit of cinematography, and the necessary editing (of what must have been an overwhelming amount of footage) are all that help to make Autumnís Eyes a painfully candid look at urban poverty. The strategic move to film the gritty documentary from 3-yr-old Autumnís perspective may seem a manipulative one, but in order to see things as objectively as possible, why NOT watch events unfold from the point of view of an innocent bystander?
Autumnís Eyes points no fingers Ė thereís no need to. The audience can villanize the mother or grandmother if it wants to, but itís clear that this family is doing nothing more than struggling from day to day. No narrative voiceover drops in to blame government or society for the familyís plight. No statistics on poverty or information about domestic policy add any sort of context to the straightforward documentary.
Because of this, people will walk away from Autumnís Eyes uneasily; Autumnís experience is hard to forget and itís plainly tragic that it canít be all that unique. I want to know how Autumn is doing today; I want to know how sheíll be doing in five years, ten years. Will she break out of this cycle of poverty? Will her spirited cheer be replaced by bitterness when sheís old enough to realize the unlucky cards she was dealt in life?
Iím not sure if the Social Problem is the star of this movie or if itís Autumn. After all, Autumnís optimism and innocence is almost noble and it doesnít hurt that sheís adorable. Sheíll win every audience memberís heart the moment she appears onscreen. Sure, Mendoza and Noble couldíve picked a less cute child, but itís not like they scripted the little charmer.But audience members will remember Autumn more than theyíll remember facts on poverty anyways. Ultimately, Autumnís adversity canít possibly be justified Ė whether folks blame her caregivers or government, or both, theyíll all agree that something must be done so children like her can have a chance at life.