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Film review: 'Stolen Childhoods' is wearying

Published: Friday, July 1 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

STOLEN CHILDHOODS — ** 1/2 — Documentary feature on child labor, narrated by Meryl Streep; in English, with subtitles for foreign dialects; not rated, probable PG-13 (adult themes, drugs).

Some of the images of child laborers in "Stolen Childhoods" are stunning. But the film itself is less than enthralling.

If the material wasn't of such interest, the movie would be almost unwatchable. Filmmaker Len Morris continually drives home the same point, about the inhumanity and cruelty of child labor. Needless to say, it gets redundant and starts feeling wearying and monotonous.

And speaking of monotony, Meryl Streep's curiously unemotional voice-over narration sounds like she's having a hard time finding interest in the film. (Frankly, her voice work here seems more appropriate for one of those infomercials featuring Sally Struthers than a documentary feature.)

"Stolen Childhoods" attempts to show how widespread child labor is, noting that nearly 250 million youngsters around the world are working illegally, for next to nothing, and in some cases in hazardous conditions.

And by looking at a Texas onion farm, Morris and his crews show that it's not as far removed from North America as you might think. The section on child sex trade concentrates on Mexico and South America, which hit pretty close to home.

The children's stories are powerful. And you can't watch scenes of kids living in such poverty without suffering a little bit of a crisis of conscience.

Morris does note that recent developments regarding trade restrictions and debt forgiveness between countries may ease the problem and eliminate some of the need for the young laborers. So it's not all doom-and-gloom.

But even though he manages to get some of their adult bosses in the crossfire, he fails to fire away. And you have to wonder if Morris made any effort to talk with parents of the laborers who aren't orphans.

"Stolen Childhoods" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for adult themes (including discussion of the child sex trade), as well as references to drug use and toxic chemicals. Running time: 86 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com