The Zellner brothers perform a sort of balancing act. Who Is On First?, one of their early shorts, begins as a slow, deadpan version of the Abbott and Costello routine. But by the end, it is clear the film is not homage but a very insightful piece on language and how it is a constant barrier between people. Their films blur the lines between the inane and the profound, and their style, in which they manage to engage serious topics through absurd means (and a reliance on white trash culture), has earned them comparisons to both Harmony Korine and Terrence Malick (in the same sentence!).
Kid-Thing is David and Nathan Zellner’s newest feature-length. It tells the story of Annie (Sydney Aguirre), an unruly 10 year-old. While on a break from school Annie shoplifts, shoots dead animals with her paintball gun, and finds an old woman trapped in a well in the forest. The film excels in its portrayal of childhood, its soundtrack and frequent use of soft focus creating what seems to be an innocent world. But left without guidance and struggling to find a purpose, Annie is not part of this innocence. She spends her days wreaking minor havoc through violence — always over defenseless things like a toilet or an insect or a girl in a wheelchair. A scene on a playground early in the film suggests that these displays might be the result of the taunting she receives from other kids. At first she stands outside the playground, apprehensive. Excluded from the group, she releases her frustrations through aggression and pebble throwing as the other kids insult her.
While the film’s composition suggests a fondness for childhood, its events portray a world of loneliness, boredom and distrust — a much more accurate portrayal. The Zellner brothers not only give us how we want to remember childhood, but also how we really experienced it. The centerpiece of Kid-Thing is Annie’s relationship with Esther (Susan Tyrrell), the woman stuck in the well. Annie struggles with whether she should help Esther because she is afraid Esther may be the Devil. Her distrust is warranted, too — all the adults in the film act like children. Her father and his friend (played by Nathan and David Zellner themselves) participate in a demolition derby, shoot each other with fireworks, and use scratch-offs as a source of income. Aside from a brief scene of Annie’s father milking a goat, they are never seen doing anything productive. Even Esther is trapped and helpless like a child. So when Annie needs advice, she visits a physically and mentally disabled man instead of one of them.
Kid-Thing’s weaknesses are not in the story but in the execution. The script is weak, and the performances aren’t strong enough to make up for it. The dialogue is banal, but not in an everyday life sort of way, instead coming off as forced. A scene in which Annie makes a prank call to a mechanic, for instance, is not nearly as funny or subverting as it should be. Sydney Aguirre does do a decent job as Annie, but it’s a stretch to ask the young actress to carry the whole film. While Kid-Thing’s first twenty minutes are great, unfortunately, the Zellners never find the necessary balance between absurdity and sincerity for this film to work as a whole.