The monstrous child is making a comeback in recent independent horror films. For instance, the upcoming film Orphan features a young recently-adopted girl who harbors a deep dark secret and terrorizes her new family. Adoption advocates (including Leonardo DiCaprio) have protested the film, which initially used the tag-line “It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own,” a line uttered by the film’s primary antagonist. The tagline has since been changed and the line of dialog replaced, but pro-adoption groups remain frustrated by the film’s concept, title, and marketing.
At this point, I feel that taking a stand on Orphan would be premature–I’d like to see the film first and get a sense of how the text grapples with the hot-button issues. Texts like this can be incredibly tricky to pin down, and readings against the grain are often possible. When I watch the trailer, for instance, I can’t help but immediately interpret Esther as a queer figure in her traditional family, and I am curious as to whether or not such interpretations support or refute the concerns of adoption advocates.
Orphan reminds me of a similar film called Joshua, which plays on many of the same themes of the alienated child within the nuclear family. The film stars Sam Rockwell as Brad and Vera Farmiga as Abby (she is also in Orphan), parents who have just had their second child, a baby girl named Lily. Their older son, Joshua (portrayed by Jacob Kogan), struggles to adjust to his new sibling, while Abby worries that her severe post-partum depression after Joshua’s birth will recur with their new baby. Though these worries seem unfounded initially, tensions in the household rise because of Joshua’s peculiar behavior. For instance, during a game of hide-and-seek, Joshua takes his baby sister from her crib, causing his mother to panic. After much searching, Abby returns to the crib to find Lily safe and sound, and Abby wonders if the whole scenario was hallucinated. These strange incidents persist, gradually leading Brad to believe that Joshua may be a sociopath. After Brad’s mother dies under mysterious circumstances while watching Joshua, Brad asks a psychologist to visit with Joshua. After the session, the psychologist expresses concerns that Joshua is being physically abused, which Brad denies vociferously. At the climax of the film, Brad takes Joshua and Lily to the park, where Joshua taunts his sister by stealing her pacifier. The scene ends with Brad beating Joshua publicly, prompting his arrest and the children’s placement with their uncle, Ned.
Queer elements of the text distinguish Joshua from the standard monstrous child movie. Joshua, with his perfectly coiffed hair, slightly effeminate mannerisms, impeccable wardrobe (he’s always wearing a tie), and interest in music and art, easily reads as queer. Joshua’s relationship with his gay uncle, Ned, reinforces this reading. Joshua gravitates toward Ned whenever he is present, and they share their love of music together by playing duets on the piano. During one of the film’s more effective scenes, Joshua performs “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” periodically hitting flat, high pitched notes that twist the songs angelic sound. While Joshua’s parents look puzzled by the performance, Ned appears moved by the rendition and says he’s hitting every note perfectly. By rendering this lullaby strange, the performance is essentially “queer” in the sense of “differing in some odd way.”
While these touches might make Joshua a queerphobic text since Joshua is both queer and monstrous, a more nuanced reading could also be drawn. While the film heavily implies that Joshua is disturbed, it consistently denies the viewer of scenes which show Joshua enacting violence. When Joshua’s grandmother dies from falling down a set of stairs, for instance, the camera cuts away so that the viewer never knows for certain whether Joshua pushed her or if she simply slipped. Scenes which do show Joshua saying or doing strange things never rise to the level of blatant violence. The aforementioned hide-n-seek scene, for instance, doesn’t really show Joshua physically hurting anyone, but merely playing a game that could be perceived as manipulative. In other words, one could argue that much of the hysteria surrounding Joshua results not from Joshua’s particular actions but from the projected emotions of the adults that surround him.
The final scene could support this assertion: Joshua, now living with his uncle, performs a song of his own creation called “The Fly.” The song’s lyrics refer to the parents’ efforts to save Joshua, and the uncle’s feeling that Joshua “never missed a note.” Here’s a video of the song performed by Dave Matthews (who wrote it specifically for the film):
On the one hand, the lyrics could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of Joshua’s sadistic impulses (e.g. tearing the wings off a fly for pleasure); on the other hand, there’s something genuinely touching about the song’s references to a lack of acceptance by the family and a feeling of acceptance from the uncle. In essence, it’s a lullaby expressing desire for a queer family and rejection from the traditional straight family.
There’s validity to reading Joshua as a story of queer monstrosity, but I also believe one could see the film as a quest for a queer family. These readings are not mutually exclusive, but operate in tandem, complexifying the text and offering a range of meanings to the viewer. Ultimately, Joshua demonstrates that even the monstrous figure can illicit empathy and complicate ideological readings of a text.