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The strange, paradoxical inner lives of children have long been a source of fascination for filmmakers. Although directors such as Satyajit Ray, Francois Truffaut and Steven Spielberg -- to name only a few -- have contributed greatly to the so-called Coming of Age film, none of the above filmmakers has ever really explored the amoral element of childhood. Spielberg frequently shows us that being a child is fraught with danger and fear, but he never examines the child's lack of moral clarity that, for example, Sam Peckinpah did in the opening moments of The Wild Bunch (1969) when William Holden's character spots a group of giggling children watching two scorpions fight it out. In that one scene Peckinpah succinctly externalized the amoral inner life of the child -- how moments of savagery arise precisely because of their innocence, which makes them incapable of comprehending the ramifications of their cruelty.

But films such as Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados (1950), Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Hector Babenco's Pixote (1981), Philip Ridley's The Reflecting Skin (1990), Jean-Claude Lauzon's Leolo (1992), and most recently David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000) are just a few of the many films that have understood the moral netherworld that is childhood. Horror films frequently explore this nightmare terrain (e.g. The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Other, The Omen), but they do so forsaking any attempt at ambiguity or sense of melancholy -- two of the more pervasive childhood states of being.

Lynne Ramsay's debut film Ratcatcher (1999) is a worthy addition to the pantheon of ambiguity and amorality, and it marks the emergence of an important new voice in world cinema. From the film's opening moments wherein we watch a child twirling himself in a curtain as if to conjure away the world outside, to the film's final scenes of young James (William Eadie) and his family hauling a load of furniture across a golden field to their new home, far away from the grim harsh reality of the tenement estate where much of the film is set, Ratcatcher daringly and touchingly evokes all of the pain and confusion of growing up while still holding on to the wonder that is seemingly everywhere and nowhere.

Set in Glasgow during a long garbage strike in the mid-1970s, the film focuses on James as he tries to cope with the death of a friend who drowned in the canal that runs next to the tenements. Guilt swells inside of young James because his friend died just moments after James left him alone in the polluted waters of the canal. Grief-stricken but unable to tell anyone about what happened down by the water, James wanders from incident to incident keeping the secret inside him where it ferments like a primal memory.

But Ratcatcher is not a simple doom-haunted slice of social realism. What's remarkable and refreshing about Ramsay's story is how deftly she breaks free from the constraints of social realism for an excursion into the poetic and the surreal, a fitting and inspired stylistic choice since James himself moves effortlessly from dreams to reality with little trouble. Nothing is certain in the film except that no one moment nor person can be easily defined.

Many of Ratcatcher's most powerful scenes stem from James's relationships with other characters -- his family, his "girlfriend" Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), and his friend Kenny (John Miller) who dreams of one day owning his own zoo -- and the ways in which James' perception of them changes over the course of the film. Ratcatcher is so effective in translating James' view of the world that it is frequently disconcerting for us when characters don't always remain who we thought they were. That willingness to challenge the viewer's perception is not only appropriate, but refreshing when so many films shy away from showing us more than one facet of a character's personality. Even peripheral characters in the film (e.g. the gang of unruly lads who roam the tenements) reveal more than their first impression. Underneath the lads' tough exterior and frequent cruelty there is a touching vulnerability and fear in their eyes, and there is laughter, especially during the scene when James accompanies them to Margaret Anne's flat. Throughout the film Ramsay repeatedly asks us not to judge her characters because no one moment can define who a person really is. Even though the characters act outside of a moral framework, their casual cruelty is interchangeable with their capacity for tenderness and love.

For a debut film, Ratcatcher is surprisingly assured. One never feels that Ramsay doesn't know exactly where she is going at all times. And for a film that is so episodic and character driven, its pacing never lags or loses momentum. The film has a consistently organic feel to it, even when cinematographer Alwin Kuchler skillfully constructs scenes that are far removed from more traditional social-realism. As with the film George Washington, the influence of director Terrence Malick is also apparent, though never intrusive. Ramsay even uses Carl Orff's wonderful "Musica Poetica," a piece of music that Malick brilliantly used throughout his teenage daydream spree killer fantasy Badlands (1973). Its inclusion in Ratcatcher is not only a fine surprise, it gives the story a stylistic lift that sets it apart from other films of this stripe.

Although the film received numerous awards around the world, it failed to find a distributor in the United States and was shown only on a couple of screens in New York City in 2000. A shameful and unfortunate footnote to say the least. Fortunately, the film has been released on DVD by The Criterion Collection and contains an excellent 22-minute video interview with the director, her three award-winning short films -- Small Deaths (1995), Kill the Day (1996) and Gasman (1997) -- and more.

Ratcatcher is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Special features: 2002 video interview with director Lynne Ramsay; three short films by Lynne Ramsay, including "Gasman" (winner of the Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival); and a stills gallery. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.