Like a stud-horse in a suburban backyard, I never really had a chance. My parents met in Sydney, Australia in 1987. My dad celebrated his eighteenth birthday with his mother and two siblings on the immigration boat from Sicily and twenty years later he met my mother, who was twenty-eight and on vacation in Australia from Palermo. Two months later they were married on a friend’s boat. Three years later they had me. Somewhere along the way, they forgot to make any friends who had children, and so for the first three years of my life, my only experience playing hide and seek had taken place at 3 a.m. when my parents got off work. By the time we moved from Sydney to a small coastal town in Northern New South Wales, I could read, recite songs from the radio and speak two languages. What I couldn’t do was relate to other kids so well.
I was weird. I was ethnic. I had a really long name no one could pronounce, let alone spell, and people at the supermarket stared when my mother and I conversed in Italian. I spent the next few years of my childhood getting lost in movies. I modelled outfits off of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, I wrote letters to Goldie Hawn, I learned John Travolta’s day-care dance number from Look Who’s Talking Too. The world in film was some kind of hyper-colour glossy dream where nothing was ever dull, people always knew the right thing to say and seemingly fatal mistakes always had some humour or fix applied to them. I suppose you could say I’ve spent the rest of my life waiting for the movie to start.
Now I’m in my early twenties and I’m wondering where the soundtrack is: the chance encounter where I help out some guy who looks like a homeless man but is actually the editor of a big literary magazine. Searching for a job post-college is more like thumbing through rack after rack of ugly clothing in a thrift store: after hours of oversized petticoats and stained button-downs, you don’t know even know who you are any more, let alone what you came for in the first place, and you find yourself trying to decide whether you could pick out the shoulder pads in a fuchsia blazer. Then when you get to the counter, the sales lady tells you the store works by a grading system, and before you start owning blazers you must first purchase used swimwear and stirrup pants. But I promised myself I would never wear a used bathing suit, you find yourself saying.
You’re in no position to be picky right now, she says. After Karl Lagerfeld went crazy and burned everyone’s wardrobes to the ground in the global garment fire of 2012, it’s a shit-storm out there. I’ve got supermodels coming in buying all the satin muumuus their twig arms can carry. Kapeesh?
One minute you’re a kid staring at the future with your eyes wide open, dreaming about the day you can kiss rules and PG programming goodbye, and the next the future is right here – and what it looks like is the basement room of a dilapidated share-house that floods when it rains and has padded walls, because the room used to be a recording space, with no prospects and no one to hold your hand.
I’ve been wading my way through a self-diagnosed quarter-life crisis since my twenty-second birthday, which was almost two years ago now. Every birthday succeeding my seventh has been a wistful experience, inducing life flashbacks, the calculation of how many years I have left until death, and comparing what I’ve done by that age to what people I admire had done by that same age. At eleven it was Anna Paquin. At twenty-three it was Carson McCullers. My Carson McCullers birthday was also the day I realised I’m not even near where I thought I would be by the time I turned nineteen, let alone now. The realisation that my imagination does not shape or dictate my waking life was a blow, and I suppose my quarter life crisis is in large part characterised by my mourning of not hope, but an expectation that I would be something. Symptoms of my quarter life crisis include: the inability to watch television without ranting about how unrealistic it all is; looking back on adolescence with some weird nostalgic lens; watching teenagers, jealously imagining what I would have done differently when I was their age; the growing fear that maybe somewhere along the line I made the wrong choice or missed some opportunity and now I’m lost on the wrong path, and the universe either can’t find me or forgot about me entirely.
When I was a kid I would beg my parents to help me get an agent, scouring through the phone book and writing down the numbers for them to call. My efforts were typically met with laughter and my dad’s spot on impression of James Caan in Mickey Blue Eyes: “Fugghettabout it.” I was forced to spend my childhood watching my dream from the sidelines, writing one-liners for my sitcom or preparing interview answers for Oprah. I authored plays, forcing my little brother and cousins to learn lines and don ridiculous costumes.
Now at twenty-three, I’m at a distance from my adolescence that allows me to lust after those mystical pubescent years while remembering all-too-well that high school was a hellhole of judgmental friends, authority, and self-loathing. Perhaps I wasted my teen-hood on parties and TV and lusting over brain-dead losers whose seeming mystery served as a paper-thin veneer for nothing but compulsive masturbation and the cognitive inability to construct compound sentences.
Life now is much like it was in high school: I’m here wondering whether everyone is really having as much fun as they seem to be, and if they are, why aren’t I? And I’m still pissed off that life doesn’t look like it does in the movies. I guess that comes down to the root of my childhood stardom dreams: In my six-year-old mind, I thought that if I could pretend in the movies, then I could touch the magic that they seemed to encapsulate.
There was that, and Devon Sawa. The first piece of him I got to know was the back of his head as he glided down the grand staircase of his stately childhood home, coloured lights dancing on his flaxen hair as he scanned the Halloween party for Christina Ricci. When he found her he was changed from the ethereal boy I’d known for the previous hour: He took complete control and led her out to the dance floor. As they danced and floated in the air, I floated with them. It was the first time I could feel my heart pounding. You never forget the first time.
You know Devon: He was the angel-faced love interest in three of the most defining child films of the nineties: Casper, Little Giants, and Now and Then. I wanted to be Christina Ricci while she danced with Devon Sawa as Casper; Becky as she awkwardly hugged Devon Sawa as the hot star player in Little Giants after their team of misfits won the big game against Al Bundy; Christina Ricci when Devon Sawa, as neighbourhood bully Scott Wormer, he actually kissed her on the mouth in Now and Then. I had all these feelings I didn’t understand. I’m pretty sure I watched Little Giants so many times that my mother had to tell the man who owned the video store to keep it under the counter.
Devon Sawa grew up in Vancouver, and had a regular childhood until 1992 when, at the age of 14, he became the spokes-kid for Nerf. He spent the next four years being the catalyst for pre-adolescent sexual awakenings everywhere, from America to the opposite side of the globe. His age came to a standstill as he sowed the seeds of unrealistic expectations in pre-adolescent girls everywhere. For the next ten or fifteen years we would suffer, wondering why Robbie Myers wasn’t into holding hands or chasing off bullies for the sole purpose of defending our honour.
Eventually I got over my crush on Devon. I was seven when Laura Johnson spilled at the water bubblers that she had a crush on Robbie Myers. Robbie was tanned and he had a blonde undercut like Nick Carter. I decided then and there, thanks to Laura’s helpful suggestion, to redirect all my youthful pining onto him. I did this for the next three years, until his family moved to another state. When I was seventeen I searched for him on MySpace and was devastated by the discovery that my childhood love’s hair had darkened and that he favoured hyper-coloured muscle t-shirts. How had this happened?
The thing is, I’ve spent time recently pouring over interviews with Devon Sawa–but I find myself hiding behind my hands as I read. It’s willful ignorance. My resistance is fear that the present Devon Sawa will poison or overwrite my memory of the Devon Sawa I once loved because his childhood in film is integral to my early youth. It’s mine. Who ever hoped to see Casper murder Dido? When you type Devon Sawa into Google, you get three prompts: Devon Sawa interview, Devon Sawa looks different and What happened to Devon Sawa’s face?
What happened is that we forgot to cryogenically freeze him and put his body on display in a museum as the memorial to the female collective sexual innocence. Like the complete amateurs we are, we let him go on with his life and grow up. We let him grow up, and apparently do the whole DUI, multiple shady arrests thing.
He’s now put that all behind him and is a regular on a TV show called Nikita. I know this because I just found him on Twitter. I also found out, on Twitter, that he is friends with Shane West. From what I can tell, Devon is still reasonably attractive. He likes smoked chicken wings, Linkin Park, and meaningful tattoos.
I have come to the realisation that I don’t care about Devon Sawa. I care about Junior Floyd, Scott Wormer, and Casper. Now THOSE were boys I could write hearts in my notebook over. And not one of them wore a cologne called Spice Bomb. The realisation that they don’t exist, that Devon Sawa has more in common with Tyler Stevens, who once pushed me to the ground for no reason, is like–I don’t even know you. He likes MMA, for God’s sake. I was supposed to marry this guy, and now he loves MMA? My youth: shot to hell.
Another reason I wanted to be an actress so badly was the technicolour immortality. Child stars had the ability to crystallise their childhoods, or a better version of them in perpetuity. That was something I sensed, if not completely understood: that time would eventually pass and there would be little record of the person I was then. I wanted to distil that part of my life. It’s only now that I look around and can note the passing of time. Devon Sawa isn’t the angel-faced kid throwing jello bombs at Christina Ricci and Thora Birch any more, he’s old and he’s on Twitter.
If we can only see the effects of time passing in the objects that surround us, then the function of the child star’s growth into adolescence and the driving force behind society’s resistance to this growth is to serve as a marker for our own aging and eventual completion. Suddenly Miley Cyrus has traded in buck teeth for twerking against Robin Thicke’s crotch and the whole of the Western world is wigging about a young girl trying to make the long leap to adulthood. Sure, her transition has been a bit clumsy–but what fawn finding its legs isn’t clumsy? Why was I so horrified and repulsed? Why did Brooke Shields feel the need to go on TV and apologise for her?
I understand all this. When you’re a child star, it’s hard to grow up: You’re either over-sexualised by the media or forgotten about, because the majority of us go through an ugly phase. If you want to continue your career, it means incubating before the masses decide whether or not you’re spank-bank worthy.
There is, however, something in me that’s flipped. I once keenly anticipated the day I could decide who I was, fixing my line of vision on the near-far future like a dog eyeing a Schmacko. Now that I reside in that portion of life I spent my whole life trying to make out, I’m paralysed not only by choice, but the very real possibility of failure. How exactly am I supposed to decide exactly what I want? And even if I do decide, am I just bee-lining for disappointment? Am I going to end up terrorising high school students for the rest of my life, wearing Birkenstocks and a flesh-coloured bra with stretched-out elastic, living in a suburb where there are no sidewalks and my mailbox keeps getting run over by drunken teens? What if I don’t even hold the capability for that? Right now I’m wishing something had been decided for me– that by the age of twenty-three I could say I’d already been good at something and, like Devon Sawa, I was going to have a little break and/or down now, thanks.
In the same way that I wish I could un-see Miley molesting a defenceless foam finger, I also wish Robbie and Devon would get back into the drawer I keep for childhood in my mind and stop being relentless reminders of the simple fact that I’m not a kid anymore. No matter how many whimsical cupcakes I lose my shit over or how many playsuits I wear. The decisions I make now are ones that have no clear-cut resolution, and I’m at the precise moment in my life where the universe stops doing what I tell it to.
I’m teetering over the chasm, and on the other side my thirty-five-year-old self is too busy to fist-bump, because she’s wondering exactly how she got to where she is and why our life looks nothing like how we pictured it. Which all sounds very similar to what a mid-life crisis is supposed to be like, and what is freaking me out is that if I don’t make it out of this crisis unscathed, I could very well be face-palmed by another in the next fifteen to twenty years. And what happens if, by the time I’m in my forties, I’m not in the financial position to remedy it with a pool and a green convertible? What then?
I recently re-watched Casper as part of this research and noticed a couple of details I’d glossed over as a child. The transition from Casper to Devon Sawa is aged WAY up: He inexplicably goes from precocious ten-year-old ghost to hunky adolescent babe in the flesh. Also: does anyone remember the ending? Casper never crosses over. He’s stuck on the physical plane, in love with a girl who will only get older, who is not interested in him as a ghost romantically and who is on the verge of adolescent dating. He got lost along the way and now he is lost–forever. The ending of that film was an ever-present prelude to the big realisation of our twenties: some mistakes you just have to live with.