For most of us, the teen years are a dangerous age. For child stars they're even more perilous. Professionally speaking, it is the rare juvenile thespian who survives his youth.
There are exceptions. But for every Leonardo DiCaprio who evolves into an Oscar-nominated powerhouse, there is a Macaulay Culkin, whose career flatlines. For every Judy Garland who flowers, there is a Mickey Rooney who never quite blooms.
Which brings us to the latest career moves of Dakota Fanning, 12, the porcelain-doll star of Charlotte's Web, and Daniel Radcliffe, 17, better known by his screen persona, Harry Potter.
Hounddog, an indie film with Fanning as a 13-year-old rape victim, premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival. Equus, the 1973 play starring Radcliffe as a troubled teen fixated on horses, is in rehearsals for a London revival late this month. Radcliffe will play some scenes in the buff.
Fanning as a victim of sexual attack? Radcliffe as a horse fancier, fetishist and mutilator? My knee-jerk reaction: What were their parents thinking?
Just as every adolescent struggles to develop his or her own identity, young actors struggle against being forever typecast as kids on two fronts, developmental and professional.
On the plus side, acting permits Fanning and Radcliffe to rehearse dangerous situations without suffering real-world consequences. This cannot be said of other child stars - Drew Barrymore and Lindsay Lohan come to mind - whose family-friendly screen roles were in sharp contrast to the real-world, wild-child behavior that landed both in rehab.
Surely Fanning and Radcliffe (and their parents) have carefully studied the careers of kid actors who successfully transitioned into adult roles. Jodie Foster and DiCaprio are the obvious role models, but should they be? Foster went from playing Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer at 11 to Iris the child prostitute in Taxi Driver at 13. DiCaprio proceeded from a featured role on television's Growing Pains at 17 to the part of a drug-addicted student in The Basketball Diaries at 21.
The part of me that would like to keep my kids forever innocent doesn't want to hear about Fanning getting molested or Radcliffe getting emotionally and physically naked. They are kids. And what's more, they are heroes to our youth. Two high schoolers who heroized DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries perpetrated the massacre at Columbine High.
While there's no correlation between these violent films and the criminal actions of disturbed youths, it is still unsettling to see actors we've watched grow up take on sexualized and violent roles.
According to those who previewed Hounddog, the rape is not explicit (director Deborah Kampmeier focuses on Fanning's face, not her body) and is mercifully brief and without nudity. And as I remember Equus, seeing it on Broadway in the '70s, the nudity is discreet.
Which is not the word I'd use to characterize the early-adolescent roles of Foster, Brooke Shields and Natalie Portman.
Foster was 13 when she played the hooker in 1976. Shields was likewise 13 in 1978 when she made Pretty Baby, scantily clad as a child prostitute in early-20th-century New Orleans. Ditto Portman when she played the jailbait lollipop in The Professional.
However much I like these films, the eroticization of barely teenage actresses is creepy. It's unnerving to see how these films walk the wavy line between exploration and exploitation, relishing the charms of the young women while portraying them as specimens of a sick culture that sells innocence to the highest bidder: Aren't they depraved? And aren't they hot?
Yet it's also troubling to see Fanning as the 10-year-old abducted at gunpoint in the R-rated Man on Fire, and the 11-year-old who may or may not be a psychopath in the R-rated Hide and Seek. Likewise the super-violent, human-scale chess game played by 12-year-old Daniel Radcliffe in the PG-rated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, or the lethal wizardry of Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
If Radcliffe or Fanning were my kid, I'd suggest that rather than follow in the footsteps of Foster and DiCaprio, you should blaze your own path. The hardiest blooms are not forced in the hothouses of sex and violence.
And for my own kid, who likes Radcliffe and Fanning? We'll pass on their latest ventures - and wait for the next Bend It Like Beckham, Clueless, or Little Manhattan, thanks.