Home Video Hovel- Little Fugitive, by Tyler Smith
Little Fugitive, directed by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, and Ruth Orkin, seems to exist as a genre unto itself. It is a film of contradictions that never seem to actually conflict. It is funny yet dramatic, stylized yet naturalistic, simple yet complex. Many consider the film to have inspired the French New Wave, including Francois Truffaut himself. It is easy to see how one could come to this conclusion, as it takes the verite style of Italian Neorealism and gives it a light-as-a-feather touch, giving a simple story the feeling of immediacy that so many films would go on to adopt. It seems strange that a film as influential as Little Fugitive isn’t very well-known, but the recent release by Kino seems to be a step towards exposing the film to a wider audience.
The story is told in a very straightforward way. A couple of New York City latchkey kids, Lennie and Joey, are left alone by their mother for a couple of days. Lennie, the older of the two, resents having to take care of Joey when he and his friends were planning on going to Coney Island for the day. Now he’s stuck at home, angry that he once again has to play father to his little brother.
Here already we see a fascinating dynamic; one that will undoubtedly be familiar to many. Those of us with siblings can often point to a complex relationship stemming all the way back to childhood. We love our siblings more than anything, but we never actually chose to be related to them. While many of us, as kids, probably had a good relationship with our siblings, there is no doubt that we were aware- even unconsciously- that there was an obligation that came with them. They were not simply friends, whom we were free to choose. They were a responsibility. So that, no matter how much we may have liked them, our sense of being tied to them could be frustrating. And this dynamic comes out in Lennie’s attitude toward his little brother, whom he undoubtedly loves, but resents.
Lennie eventually recruits his friends to play a trick on the 7-year-old Joey in which it appears that Joey has shot and killed Lennie. Joey runs away from home, catching the train to Coney Island himself. Once there, he plays games, eats cotton candy, and just has fun. He even finds a makeshift job, picking up bottles on the beach and turning them in for money, which he then uses to ride more rides and have more fun. And while he is certainly enjoying himself, Joey never lets himself get truly swept away in the experience. After all, he is responsible for the death of his brother.
Eventually, we see Lennie’s conscience start to bother him and he goes searching for Joey. He ascertains that Joey has gone to Coney Island, but that is by no means the end of the search. With so many people, it’s hard to find one little kid. Lennie does what he can to find his brother, even going so far as to leave signs all over the boardwalk and beach telling Joey to meet him at a specified location. In Lennie’s efforts, we are reminded just how young he is, too. While he may regularly be put in the position of caring for his brother as a father figure, he is most certainly not an adult. And the tragedy of the brothers’ situation becomes very clear. We are dealing with children. Due to the loss of their father, each brother takes on more than he really should. Lennie is tasked with taking care of his brother and Joey is thus resented as a burden. Neither boy asked for this, but must deal with it all the same.
This knowledge causes us to root for a stirring reunion. We want these two to find each other and wrap their arms around one another. And while they do eventually connect, their reunion isn’t the emotional, affectionate scene we want it to be. Instead, it is simple and forthright, which is how these characters behave.
That is one of the things I most respect about this remarkable film. It’s commitment to realism sometimes flies in the face of what the audience may want. The film is content to create believable characters and allow them to dictate how the story will unfold and how it will feel as it does. It has how the film is able to be genuinely sweet without ever being saccharine. And that kind of honesty is so refreshing that I can’t imagine anybody not enjoying Little Fugitive.