1950’s retrophelia aside, coming-of-age tales (or bildungsromans if you will) are just too often susceptible to white-washing nostalgia; a desire to see the childhood as a time of unproblematic innocence and maturing as a clear-cut linear progression. When depicting conflict, it is thus almost always externalized as a force opposing the fun-loving purity of the youth, like a bully, over-strict father or elderly crank (often a neighbor or teacher). “Celia” (1988) includes all three of these elements, but manages to energize the clichés by focusing more on the protagonist’s complicated internalized reactions, which are often times at odds with adult morality.
Ray has periods of calm between his misguided furies, but never really understands the emotional-spiritual connections that his daughter forms to things that seem of little consequence to him. The misunderstanding works both ways, prompting Celia to sometimes reject her parent’s instructions because she sees them as quite nonsensical.
Things are complicated by the arrival of the Tanners (Alice, Steve and their three children), friendly neighbors who are eventually revealed to be communist activists. The film being largely apolitical, this issue is of importance only to the extent that it affects Celia, who only vaguely comprehends the fuss that her parents make over it. Unlike the older Tanner boys, for instance, Celia doesn’t link Ray’s overkill reaction with his attraction to Alice. When Ray fulfills Celia’s long-held dream of owning a pet rabbit, in exchange for her promise to cease playing with the Tanner children, he inadvertently sets in motion a much greater tragedy than whatever he was trying to avoid.
Here enters the second unfortunate historical circumstance of note. In 1859, Thomas Austin imported some 24 rabbits into Australia saying, "The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting." By the 1950’s, rabbits had become a catastrophic plague, threatening to wipe out the country’s agriculture and provoking extreme responses from the government. One response was a law banning citizens from owning domestic rabbits. Celia is forced to take Murgatroyd to a crowded zoo pen where it can be kept while a grassroots campaign protests the absurdity of the law.
This last event triggered a great deal of mishandling over the course of the film’s minimal release history. The poster art and video releases attempted to market the film as an exploitation horror film along the lines of “The Bad Seed.” But the film shares more in common with films like “Valerie and Her Weeks of Wonders” (1970), “Paperhouse” (1988) and “Heavenly Creatures” (1994), where the theme of a young girl’s internal world spun dangerously out of control is treated sympathetically. Indeed, the ending of “Celia” may imply that our hero has even managed to productively overcome her crisis, though disturbing overtones and the continuation of the eerie soundtrack (incidentally, another highlight of the film) leave doubts.
Walrus Rating: 8.5
The always-reliable Second Run UK released Celia on R2 DVD about two months ago. “Celia” has held a decent reputation in Europe, but very little following in the US due to unavailability, so I’ve been a bit lonely in my anticipation of this release. I’d flirted with the VHS and a very tattered bootleg for while, but this is a much cleaner print and comes highly recommended. With the clever cover art, essay insert and interview with the director on the Second Run release, I think the film is finally getting the treatment, and wider audience, it deserves.