The Lost Boy

I weep like a baby at lost boys on film. I do not know if “lost boys” is an ancient literary theme. There is Jesus in the Temple, but he is not really lost. William Blake has a beautiful poem about a little boy lost. There’s Peter Pan, of course.

But modern cinema seems to deal with this question quite a bit. Is it because lost boys have grown exponentially since mid-century?

Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence shows us the sentient robot-boy David, the first of its kind who can show real love for his owners. He is placed with a family whose real son is held in a state of suspended animation until a cure is found for his deadly disease. A cure is found, and he returns home to find he has a robot rival.

The real boy orchestrates incidents that make his parents fear David and the clinic decides to destroy him. Instead the mother drops him in a frightening forest with his talking teddy bear. David begs his mother not to leave him.

David and Teddy venture through a vast and dangerous dystopia where robots are tortured and killed. They search for the Blue Fairy, from Pinocchio, who can turn him into a real boy that his mother might welcome home.

That is the gaping hole “lost boys” seek to fill. Through no fault of their own, they are thrown into the world and all they want is home, mother but mostly father.

Slingblade is the story of mentally deficient Karl, who as a boy was forced to dispose of his newborn brother, the survivor of a home abortion. Karl puts his brother in a shoebox and buries him alive.

At 12, he kills his mother and her boyfriend and is institutionalized. Upon his release he comes to meet 12-year-old Frank, whose father committed suicide and who lives with his mother and a string of abusive boyfriends.

Though Karl himself was a lost boy, it is the longing of young Frank that breaks your heart. He says, “Sometimes I wish I was still little and he was still here. Mama’s real good, but I wish I had both of them. We went to Memphis in the car once. It was raining so hard we couldn’t see the road but I wasn’t scared because as long as Daddy was driving nothing could happen to us.”

The lost boy movie par excellence is another Spielberg movie Empire of the Sun, which Spielberg calls his most profound work on the “loss of innocence.” The son of rich British expats living in 1937 Shanghai, Jamie loses his mother in a panicked crowd when the Japanese invade. He spends the next eight years in an internment camp located near a Japanese landing strip.

        Lost boy: A young Christian Bale as Jamie in Empire of the Sun

Toward the end of the war Jamie watches a kamikaze ceremony: three young pilots going to their certain death. Jamie salutes them and sings the haunting Welsh lullaby Suo Gân. (Listen to this on YouTube. You won’t regret it.)

Sleep child on my bosom
Cozy and warm is this;
Mother’s arms are tight around you,
Mother’s love is under my breast;
Nothing may affect your napping,
No man will cross you;
Sleep quietly, dear child,
Sleep sweetly on your mother’s breast.

The end of the war comes and Jamie wanders half starved, but is finally rescued and placed in a hopeless orphanage. One day he hears, “Jamie?” His weary eyes see his mother and she holds him to her breast – and for the first time we see Jamie close his eyes.

I have a personal reason for tearing up at scenes like this because the lost boys are always my little brother. Our father died when he was only eight, ten years my junior.

You would rightly think an older brother would make things as right as he could for his little brother. Not me. Just down the road at school, I might have been a million miles gone, caught up in my own selfish world, far removed from the pain of my little brother.

He was amazing, though. Doug fought for the fathers of other boys to become his own. And they did. They taught him to hunt and fish and camp. I see pictures of him, brave Doug, alone but surrounded by boys, but especially their dads. He is still close to many of them, closer to them than to me.

And so when I have seen those film images, I think of Doug. And how I left him when he needed me and never went back. How he had to go in search of men to replace not just a father, but an older brother. And I blush with shame.

One day my wife said, “Have you ever thought that maybe you’re the lost boy?” That knocked me sideways.

I was only eighteen when my father died. His death set me adrift in the world, and the world was foreign to me. The only tutor I allowed was the Zeitgeist, which was especially unfriendly in those days. I didn’t even decide to grow up until 36. I lived a remarkably unserious life with education, jobs, and relationships doused in years of long nights carousing with friends thinking we were really something.

By the grace of God, I pulled out of the ridiculous trajectory from which I am left with a headful of regret and handful of funny stories. But I was lucky.

As a nation, we are awash in lost boys who may not be so lucky. The National Survey of Family Growth shows 27 percent of American children live apart from their fathers; that’s 10 million lost boys. So who is protecting them as you read this?

The next time I see a lost boy on film, sure I’ll weep for my brother and even for me. But all of us should weep for the boys who, even now, are lost and alone and looking for home.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.