Harper Lee's novel and the Robert Mulligan's movie of To Kill a Mockingbird are so ubiquitous in American middle school classrooms that, 30 years after I last read the book and saw the movie, I forgot just how wonderful the film adaptation is. It was my favorite movie from this month's PopGap.
Set in the south during the 1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird views a corrupt & complicated adult world through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl who is also dealing with the more typical mysteries of youth. Mary Badham stars as Scout, the tomboyish daughter of widower-ed lawyer (Gregory Peck, who won the Best Actor Oscar for this role). She, her brother Jem (Paul Alford) and their gawky friend Dill (John Megna) navigate the varying perils of growing up in a depression-era small town: weird neighbors, inscrutable adult rules, and rabid dogs. When her father is hired to defend a poor black man against the charge of assaulting a white girl, the seemingly idyllic community's institutional racism is brought into sharp focus.
I've been harsh on a couple of other movies this month that tackled similar plot points and issues, but my objections were with the cynically contrived manipulations, smug tone & overwrought sentimentality they employed. To Kill a Mockingbird is sober and organic. Its point-of-view is innocent. It doesn't play tricks with the court case to create false suspense or attempt to wring every last bit of emotion from its naturally charged subject, but grounds itself in a realistic depiction of its events with restrained performances. Aside from a few moments of bad drunk acting, it almost perfectly weaves together the coming-of-age tale with the courtroom drama to create a poignant, challenging and affirming picture of a young girl learning about the world.
Director Mulligan made a few other good movies in his career, but never came anywhere near the mastery he displayed here. Russell Harlan's cinematography is stark, evocative & gorgeous, and Elmer Bernstein 's score has been recycled and/or aped in countless movie trailers. It's an all-around terrific movie.