The idea that childhood is some kind of developmental green belt, a prelapsarian idyll unspoilt by the burden of knowledge, has fallen out of favour since the days of covering up piano legs lest the unwary be tempted into impure thoughts. Just how far we've come from that Kate Greenaway Eden, however, can be seen in two new releases that explore the moral vacuum between innocence and experience.
The more controversial of these is Menhaj Huda's Kidulthood, a portrayal of west London teenagers that has already had the tabloids flapping about under-age sex, drugs and "happy slapping". When critics start describing this kind of film as "gritty" and "authentic" and raving about the grime soundtrack, it's hard not to take it with a pinch of salt rather than any other, more "street level" white powder - after all, these tend to be people who haven't been under-age since Margaret Thatcher walked the earth. In a culture that prizes youth so desperately, you can't help suspecting that anyone over the age of consent who enthuses about this film is betraying a vampiric eagerness to be seen as clued-in.
Yet you only need to have travelled on a bus at home-time to realise Noel Clarke's script comes with a nasty ringtone of truth. This loose group of comprehensive pupils is unabashed about discussing - or even having - sex in front of other people, while the insane cult of "respect" means that violence flares up at every turn, even if a cafe puts onions in your burger by mistake. There is a toxic cloud of misogyny in which the girls become complicit in their own oppression, while the lack of adult guidance is glaring. It's Grange Hill with menaces, only instead of Gripper Stebson nicking lunch money, it's replica guns, coke and knifings all the way.
Katie (Rebecca Martin) is brutally bullied in a classroom; that evening she hangs herself in her room. Given a day off for "mourning", the rest of her year gear up for a big party later that day. Trife (Aml Ameen), Jay (Adam Deacon) and Moony (Femi Oyeniran) take their revenge on the school thug, Sam (played by Clarke himself, also known as Mickey in Doctor Who), and head off to Oxford Street; pregnant Alisa (Red Madrell) tries to convince Trife that it's his child; she and her friend Becky (Jamie Winstone, Ray's daughter) pay older men sexual favours in exchange for pocket money; Sam beats up his girlfriend in her bedroom while her oh-so-liberal mother chirrups "use a condom, darling". It's a busy day.
For all the filth and fury, Kidulthood is ultimately a moral film - perhaps a bit too moral, if the children's film workshop ending is anything to go by. However, compared with L'Enfant (The Child), the latest slice of grim realism from the makers of Rosetta, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, it's kindergarten. Set in the Belgian steel town of Seraing - the Dardennes' base and nobody's number-one holiday destination, by the looks of things - L'Enfant follows the petty criminal Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and his girlfriend, Sonia (Deborah Francois), as they struggle with new parenthood. That's "struggle" as in "decide to sell the baby to illegal adoptioneers".
You know things won't go well when Sonia leaves hospital with their son only to find that Bruno has sublet her flat. Still, she can heartbreakingly declare "I'm happy", and in a harsh world - you can feel the wind on Sonia's bare legs as she waits by the edge of a motorway, taste the packet-soup mix she prepares - you can almost believe her. Later, however, Bruno takes the baby for a "walk": in other words, leaves his son in a deserted flat, waits tensely outside for a minute, then returns to find the baby replaced by a packet of money, a grim cash changeling.
Bruno is the kind of man who can tell the mother of his child: "I sold him . . . We'll have another." Yet Sonia's meltdown on hearing his "plan" forces him to get the baby back, beginning a classic quest for redemption. While the baby is the essence of vulnerable innocence in his little blue quilted suit - we see Sonia carrying him across a motorway, riding with him on the back of a moped - the Dardennes realise this film could just as easily be called The Children.
For Sonia and Bruno are scarcely better-equipped to live in the modern world than their newborn. They constantly play-fight, giggling, wrest-ling, biting like a boxful of puppies, free from adult conversation or expectation. Like a breastfeeding child, Bruno can think only in terms of instant gratifica-tion: a number of euros, a pile of cash. No wonder he believes he can sell his son, like Sylvester the Cat looking at Tweety Pie and seeing a roast chicken.
Finally, Sonia's genuine maternal passion seems to awaken something inside him, and Renier makes it both painful and astonishing to watch.
Like Kidulthood, L'Enfant shows a world that remains under the radar for most people, yet proves that growing up - however long it takes - is anything but child's play.