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‘Showbiz Kids’ review: HBO documentary goes beyond the salacious

A candid exploration of child stardom.

The trials and tribulations of child actors are are constantly in the news cycle. People seem to love to hear the salacious stories and tales of fallen stardom. The new HBO documentary Showbiz Kids deals with many of the occupational hazards of growing up in Hollywood. There are many interviews and the commonalities among them all is an indictment on the entertainment businessmen. 

Showbiz Kids does not limit itself to horrid tales of sexual abuse. The documentary goes deeper into the mindset of being a child actor. Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is one of the many people interviewed. She gives some great insight into being a kid on a production set. Wood repeatedly talks about the loneliness that is a part of the business. Initially, she jokingly mentions  how it is easy to point out child actors. They are the kids who can do all sorts of things well like juggle or do tricks with a yo yo since they have spent so much time alone.

It is less humorous later when she talks about how the satisfaction is balanced by the realization of being alone. This is repeated by other former child actors like Todd Bridges (Diff’rent Strokes) and Henry Thomas (E.T.). The young actors are basically treated like adults but are unable to communicate with their “peers” leading to the feeling of isolation. 

Showbiz Kids also deals with the competitiveness that the children deal with. Thomas details how simple it seemed to be a child actor before he starred in E.T. He then began to compare himself to the other kids. The loss of innocence is also a common thread. All of the interviewees talk about the lack of childhood. Mara Wilson (Matilda) talks about everything from not knowing common schoolyard games to her lack of a work ethic since her entire life has been scheduled. These moments may seem megalomaniacal, but they further prove how sheltered their lives were and are. 

'Showbiz Kids' review: HBO documentary goes beyond the salacious

It is impossible to talk about child actors without discussing their parents. The domineering stage parent will immediately come to mind. While this is the case for some, it is the opposite for others. Many of the kids actually have healthy relationships with their parents. It is unsurprising (and a little sad) to see one boy talk about how he does not care much for the constant auditions while his parents say he loves them. 

Sexual abuse is also covered, but director Alex Winter makes sure to not focus entirely on it. When Showbiz Kids talks about abuse, it covers all forms. The documentary covers mental abuse, manipulation, and the trappings of fame. Where Showbiz Kids somewhat falters is in its subplot. The documentary follows two young aspiring child actors. There are interesting moments that touch on some of the issues discussed. Ultimately, this part of the doc barely develops.

Stories about child actors tend to be tragic. Showbiz Kids deals with the many of the lows of the business. It also does a good job of showing some of the highs. The most striking part is similar the stories are despite the number of people interviewed. The documentary is filled with sobering moments but refuses to wallow in the more dehumanizing aspects that are normally found.

Showbiz Kids premieres July 14 on HBO and HBO Max.

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