Matilda (1996) Values the Brilliance of Children

I had never seen Matilda until this week, which is difficult to imagine considering my daytime job is working with children. I don’t know how the movie got past me as a child, but I’m almost happier that I got to see it for the first time as an adult. The film has a love and appreciation for kids that I don’t think I would have understood at a young age, though I definitely understand it now.

During the day (at a time not during the pandemic) I work at an after-school program where kids get to take a different art class each day of the week. Childcare is a field I definitely fell into as I gained more experience, but it’s a part of my life that I now greatly value. What first surprised me about kids when I went from working with high school students to elementary students was how smart they were, all on their own. Our program starts with pre-k students, who are all around age four, and already they were doing projects on their own and knew so much about the world around them. I am constantly in awe of their capabilities and their capacity for empathy towards each other. Matilda captures this so perfectly within a world that is brutal to all of the children involved.

Young Matilda is a sharp six and a half, though her parents neglect her so much that they believe she is still four. She teaches herself to walk to the library and with a little nudge from the staff, she brings home all her literary treasures in a child-sized red wagon. She spends her days devouring the books despite the disapproval of her cruel family who are too self-involved to care for their own child. Matilda gathers up the strength and ability to care for herself before she even discovers that she has supernatural powers. The movie goes out of its way to consistently remind the audience that we should care about Matilda in a way that her parents never could. It is heartbreaking to see them tear her apart and deny her intelligence, even though she consistently proves to us that she is in the right. 

When she is finally allowed to start school, she is greeted with even more horror at the hands of the principal Miss Trunchbull who hates children. Watching these adults so grossly harm children was deeply upsetting! Children are exactly what they are: children. The cruelty from Miss Trunchball and the Wormwood family is out of their own self-contempt and perfectly preventable, as shown in the example of Miss Honey. No matter the circumstances that lead to these figures who take their own frustrations out on innocent children, there are no excuses for their treatment that will inevitably result in permanent damage that they will need to cope with later in life.

Miss Honey is quite the opposite of all the other figures in Matilda’s life: she shows her students kindness and values their intellect, despite her own tragic upbringing. She uses creative methods to teach her students math and spelling and encourages them to use their powers to change the world. Matilda discovers that she has telekinetic powers that she can control when angered by the abuse of her family and principal. She tells Miss Honey about her powers and secret and even though Miss Honey regards this as an invention of Matilda’s mind, she still tells her to believe in her own powers. 

Miss Honey and Matilda form a mutually beneficial bond where they help each other in breaking free from the trauma of their past. Miss Honey tells Matilda about her upbringing where her father was killed and she was raised by her aunt, Miss Trunchball. Matilda is appalled and sets her sights on reclaiming a new life for Miss Honey, the one she should have been given after the death of her father. In the end, Matilda uses her powers to scare Miss Trunchball into returning Miss Honey’s childhood home to her and passing over the school into her power. Miss Honey returns the favor in adopting Matilda, taking her away from her horrific parents.

This movie filled me with pure, wholesome joy and I get the hype that has always surrounded it. There is great power in allowing children to be their brightest selves and trusting them with their own abilities. The only way to really nurture young people is to give them the power to think and act for themselves, just as we do adults. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need guidance, but the more we allow them to express who they are and who they want to be, the more likely it is that they will grow into adults with empathy for others and a strong sense of self. 

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