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“Detainment” Is the Oscars Controversy Parents Should Care About

When children do terrible things, who is to blame?

Twelve Media

Detainment, one of five live-action short films nominated at this Sunday’s Academy Awards, isn’t for the weak of stomach. The 30-minute drama tells the true story of the 1993 murder of toddler James Bulger and the subsequent detainment and questioning of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables the pair of 10-year-old boys who committed the crime. Based on public records and interviews with Thompson and Venables, the film re-enacts the case and its fallout with stark severity.  

Detainment, and the fact that it was nominated, has drawn significant controversy, mostly in the UK.  More than 90,000 people have signed a petition against it. Many say the film is far too empathetic towards Thompson and Venables and not at all towards Bulger. Bulger’s mother and father have both come forward to express their anger over the film, its callous treatment of their son’s death, and the fact that neither of them were consulted. Director Vincent Lambe didn’t talk to anyone. Lambe has said his intention of the film was to add grey to a story that is black-and-white. But, despite the controversy, the film raises interesting questions about the nature of violence, what leads children to commit heinous acts, and what responsibility parents bear for their children’s misdeeds. 

The 1993 murder of James Bulger was one of the most shocking murder cases in modern British history. Bulger, three-year-old boy from Liverpool was with his mother at a shopping mall when he was lured away from his mother by Thompson and Venables. The two boys were playing hooky from school and led Bulger on a 2.5-mile walk to a concealed area near train tracks where he was beaten mercilessly and left to die. His body was found two days later. A coroner later said that his injuries were so intense and he had been run over by a train (he had about 42 injuries on his body) that there was no way to tell which “blow” killed him.

More than 30 people saw Venables, Thompson, and Bulger on their walk to the tracks. Only one known person approached them but the boys told them that Bulger was their little brother. CCTV footage showed the two boys lead Bulger away and subsequently led to their arrest. Prosecutors were shocked to discover how young the boys were. They had assumed that the murderers were at least teenagers.

Venables and Thompson were immediately branded as monsters and their case gained international attention and sparked a large-scale debate. How could they do such a thing? Were they too young to know what they were doing? Where were the parents? The boys’ sentencing, which began with a minimum of eight years but via public petitions evolved into 15 year sentences for each boy, was also the subject of a debate. How, people wondered, should the justice system handle juvenile offenders? 

Children aren’t born with the impulse to kill or maim, and it is very rare that they ever do so. The instances in which these things occur — such as the recent “Slenderman” stabbings — ignite public debate, because they are so infrequent and so disturbing that adults and parents wonder about the safety and hidden impulses of not only their own children and form sturdier barriers around their own.

But what, the film asks, compelled these two boys — who are depicted by actors in the film and seen as young and so small — to do such a thing? A picture slowly forms. Detainment reveals that Thompson had grown up in an environment of domestic violence, alcoholism, and suicide attempts. The same is not true of Venables (his parents were divorced), but such childhood trauma is a possible reason for one to commit such a horrendous act.

After Sandy Hook, the APA published a definitive and wide-ranging study on youth violence. It found that acts of violence are often influenced by multiple factors and that violent behavior is very complex. Researchers have found that family influence plays an outsized role in children committing potentially violent acts. Parents who are authoritarian, reject their children, commit acts of domestic violence, neglect their kids, or don’t monitor their behavior often have children who show earlier signs of violent behavior. Kids without stable family lives can be violent and are more likely to have substance abuse and mental health issues. Kids with stable family lives are the opposite. Children who have neurobiological differences, such as stress from childhood trauma can also struggle, if untreated, to develop normally as their peers.

Kids who attend school more consistently and perform better in school are less likely to engage in violence (both boys were playing hooky that day and did so often.) Doing well in school is correlated with self-control, and low levels of that trait are associated with bullying and physical violence among adolescents.

There are also the big words that scare people like psychopathy and narcissism, traits that come alongside the total disregard for others. Kids who are antisocial or aggressive are more likely to be these things. Violence in popular media, drug abuse, social rejection, and diagnosed mental illness can also play a part in determining why a violent act was committed.

In other words, it takes a confluence of events to make someone go so off the social script so far that they commit murder. And family life plays an extremely important part in this. This is no way means that Thompson and Venables had no idea what they were doing, or that the circumstances that surrounded their early childhood leave them blameless.

They were, however, children. Should children go to prison? Should children be exposed to public scrutiny for their actions, despite not having fully developed brains, senses of impulse control, moral compasses? Throughout the 1993 trial, much was made of the fact that the two boys may or may not have known what they were doing was “right” or “wrong.” Psychologists, however, determined that they did.

In the end, Detainment serves as a traumatic reminder of what was taken away from Bulger’s parents so brutally by two young, troubled boys. Those boys, now young adults, don’t have much of a life, either. Venables’s troubles, it appears, will likely follow him for the rest of his life. He is in prison for the next three years on child pornography charges. Thompson goes by a different name and lives in a place no one knows, protected by gag orders and witness protection programs. The decisions they made as children ruined the rest of their lives and took the young life of another. Whether or not they should be forgiven is one question. What drove these two young boys to transform into monsters is another.