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Netflix's 'Athlete A' and HBO's 'Showbiz Kids': The Price of Children's Dreams

July 21, 2020 | By

Not every parent will produce a child star or an Olympic athlete, but many face the challenge of helping a child fulfill a treasured dream and winding up wondering about the cost of success.

Two recent documentaries, Netflix's Athlete A and HBO's Showbiz Kids, ruminate on just how high that cost can be. 

Athlete A is centered on abuse charges leveled against Dr. Larry Nassar, the former national team doctor for USA Gymnastics' women's team, which is composed largely of preteens and young teens. Warning: the film does speak in frank detail about what Dr. Nassar was eventually convicted of, and imprisoned for, doing. But, as awful as the abuse is, the story is larger than that.

The documentary also explores the culture of gymnastics coaching. Changing mores in the sport have pushed the age of female Olympic gymnasts lower and lower. Male gymnasts tend to be college-age -- and women used to be as well -- but now, the females are often barely in their teens. At the same time, the push for perfection and elusive Olympic medals has led to coaching practices that can be damaging to young psyches and punishing to young bodies.

Athlete A also talks about how gymnastics coaching can become a sort of cult, with young girls determined to excel concealing realities from their parents, and with parents sometimes being blind to cues that something is very wrong.

Showbiz Kids, directed by former child actor Alex Winter (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure), also brings up the issue of abuse of both boys and girls by people in Hollywood, but that's again only part of the story.

With occasional profanities and discussions of provocative topics, Showbiz Kids tells its story through the POVs of such former child stars as Henry Thomas (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), Mara Wilson (Mrs. Doubtfire, Matilda), Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen), Todd Bridges (Diff'rent Strokes), Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Cameron Boyce of Disney's Jessie, who died last year due to complications from epilepsy.

In contrast to the now-adult actors reflecting on their childhoods, the film looks at a young boy and his parents on a sojourn in Los Angeles, seeing if the boy can pick up any acting jobs.

What comes up again and again -- and in this, it's the same as Athlete A -- is that aspiring Olympians and actors get pushed very early into the world of adults, often before they've even figured out what it means to be a child. They want to do gymnastics or act, but to do that, they require coaches and agents and mentors.

In the case of the actors, they inhabit a professional environment almost entirely populated by adults, and sometimes work in projects with adult themes. One young actress profiled in Showbiz Kids, 13-year-old Demi Singleton, works on EPIX's Godfather of Harlem, a violent and raw crime drama.

Most producers of shows and movies like this try to shield child performers from the seamier aspects of the stories they're working on, but it's likely near-impossible to do that completely.

Even when parents, producers, directors, coaches, etc., make the effort to protect young athletes and performers, many of these children wind up the victims of predatory adults who gravitate to vulnerable targets.

In the middle of this are parents, who are often just trying to help children realize aspirations. Doing that, though, means releasing them into a world over which the parents ultimately have limited influence. The higher a child rises in a sport or profession, the more parents are pushed to the background.

Sometimes, parents have the children's best interests at heart and try to protect them, but unfortunately there are also parents looking to ride their children's coattails or just make money.

Even children with the most attentive and caring parents can also experience crushing failure, rejection and defeat -- and both documentaries show that, as well.

Not every child will be an Olympian or a movie star, but these sorts of pressures spread themselves through many areas. Whether a child wants to excel in chess, barrel racing, football, water polo, soccer, music, art, lacrosse, show jumping, spelling or dance, if you want to compete at a high level, there will be price to pay -- for the child and the family.

Watching Showbiz Kids and Athlete A can be sobering experiences. The adult content and language in both means they're not suitable for all ages -- and parents should preview them before considering sharing them with kids -- but they can be valuable cautionary tales for parents of youngsters with dreams of stardom, and for the youngsters themselves.

Showbiz Kids is available on HBO and HBO On Demand on cable, and its streaming service HBO Max; Athlete A is on Netflix.

Images: HBO/Netflix

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager and blog editor at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions our website, Facebook,Twitter and YouTube.

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