"If someone had told me that my life would have been like this, early enough where I could have gotten out, I would have got out," the late Gary Coleman says in an interview toward the end of HBO's Showbiz Kids. The Diff'rent Strokes actor is just one of many former child stars who appear in HBO's transfixing documentary, which details, in shocking frankness, the difficulties that many actors and actresses we saw grow up on-screen faced as their careers were just beginning.
Directed by Alex Winter, who is best known as Bill from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure but is now an accomplished director, Showbiz Kids uses archival footage and interviews with former child stars -- Wil Wheaton, Evan Rachel Wood, Milla Jovovich, Todd Bridges, and others -- to paint a picture of Hollywood as a star-making machine that chews up and spits out many youngsters, robbing them of their childhood and leaving them unprepared for adulthood. (Showbiz Kids also prominently features interviews with an ebullient Cameron Boyce, a Disney Channel star who was just beginning his career and passed away from a fatal seizure in 2019.)
It's a story that we've seen play out with young celebrities like River Phoenix, Corey Haim, Dana Plato, and others who succumbed to stardom in tragic ways. And while Showbiz Kids does spend some time on these extreme cases, it's the stories of those who survived and recount the day-to-day life of a child star that are the most fascinating.
To hear Wheaton describe the push for him to become a Teen Beat idol after Stand By Me, or Wood discuss the loneliness of being the youngest person on set, or Henry Thomas talk about how his parents pushed him into acting is to hear the trauma of celebrities who had no control over their youth. And while fame came with some perks, it's flabbergasting to hear how many of them wish they never got into acting in the first place, and to hear them say it with such conviction and clarity.
The most harrowing and interesting parts of Showbiz Kids involves Wood, Jovovich, and Matilda star Mara Wilson discussing the sexualization of young actresses, the difficult delineation of exploitation and art, and the older men who would prey on them. Wood was 14 when she filmed Thirteen but had the support of her family in taking on a provocative role. Jovovich, on the other hand, was dolled up as a young teen and plastered all over magazine covers despite preferring to be a tomboy. Yet Wood says pedophilia involving young male stars was much more rampant and worse, and recalls being horrified when she was in attendance at an awards show and a man who her male actor friends accused of abusing them was praised on stage with a trophy.
From a purely cinephile perspective, Showbiz Kids digs into the vaults with some great footage of interviews, auditions, and behind-the-scenes activity featuring the stars of E.T., Stand By Me, and other classics. Yet it's the off-set stories that are the most telling, as the actors reflect on the rare times when they could just be normal children when they weren't acting.
Winter also follows a pair of aspiring young actors trying to make it big today, but these scenes are lacking the depth and experience of those who have already been through it. But given what we know from the insightful interviews, you'll be pleading with them to give up that dream and be normal kids.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Showbiz Kids airs Tuesday, July 14 at 9/8c on HBO. It will be available on HBO's streaming apps after it airs.