In perhaps the most anticipated and widely-promoted adoption-relevant movie of the year, Sony Pictures revisits the story of Annie. Played by Quvenzhane Wallis, who was so brilliant in the excellent Beasts of the Southern Wild, Annie lives in New York City. She has been in foster care for almost her whole life; she was found, abandoned with a note, outside of a restaurant when she was only 4 years old. At first, Annie lives with Miss Hannigan, a bitter, disillusioned former singer who now takes care of foster kids for income. Eventually, she moves in with Stacks, a wealthy entrepreneur with political ambitions.
The film does portray some negative, and largely untrue, stereotypes about foster parents and the foster care system, but it also provides examples of several strengths possessed by many foster youth and foster alumni.
First, the good stuff! Annie is resilient. She maintains her optimism and cheerfulness in spite of disappointments and unkindness that she experiences. Annie is courageous, smart, hopeful and optimistic, like many kids in foster care. She is mature, and has a good understanding of what it means to be in foster care – and what it doesn’t mean! One person often refers to Annie as an orphan. Annie corrects him, “I’m a foster kid, not an orphan. I have parents.” This is a helpful distinction to make on such a large stage. Kids in foster are aren’t orphans, and the initial, primary goal in foster care is almost always reunification. It’s important for foster parents – and society! – to remember, embrace, and support that.
Annie doesn’t know how to read; she explains that she has been able to hide this so far. In fact, her explanation is heartbreaking, “It’s not like the whole world wants a foster kid to begin with, and plus it’s embarrassing. I didn’t want anyone to know.” Stacks does a good job of joining with Annie when she is ashamed of her inability to read. He tells her, “Everybody’s got something they don’t want anyone to know.”
When Stacks learns of Annie’s struggle, he gets Annie a tutor; she responds very well, and quickly learns how to read. Many kids in foster care struggle academically, but so often the cause is a lack of time and opportunity to learn. Stacks asks how this can happen – someone responds that in the system, “people get lost.” Foster kids are very often smart, and can thrive when given the opportunity to do so. Annie captures that.
When Annie finds her record, she exclaims, “Damn! I’ve been in a lot of homes.” Sad, but true, for many kids in care. And it’s easy for parents and professionals to see a case file with lots of homes, and assume that the child is very challenging or has lots of problematic behaviors. I’ve worked with many kids who were moved, not because of their behaviors, but because of the foster parents’ issues. I don’t think it’s ever “just” the kid.
There are some aspects which aren’t so positive, and I think it’s worth sharing them here, as well. Annie spends much time dreaming about her parents. Kids in care do think about their parents, and when there is no access to accurate information, kids tend to dream up new information. Sometimes it’s worse than realistic, sometimes it’s better than realistic, but it’s often unrealistic – and sometimes their imagined reality is hidden from those that are caring for them. This reminds me how important it is to provide kids with age-appropriate, but honest, information about their stories, all along.
Stacks learns to love when Annie teaches him. She shows him the value of letting people into his heart. He says, “Annie gave me what I didn’t know I needed.” It would be better, though, if Annie learned from, and could depend on, her caretaker for emotional support, rather than vice versa. Annie’s sensitivity and emotional maturity is certainly a virtue, but it’s unfair to her to have to use it to help an adult – who is in charge of her care – to grow. Some kids in foster care have been expected previously to function in a parental role for their younger siblings – sometimes, this leads to what is sometimes called “parentified” behavior. For a while, Annie seems to be in a parental role (psychoeducationally, at least,) over Stacks. It should never be a kid’s job to get a parent to be loving and kind. That’s one thing that kids should be able to take for granted.
Miss Hannigan is generally a horrible foster mother, and she fits the unfortunate, untrue, but often believed stereotypes of foster parents. She’s in it only for the money. She calls Annie “you little rat.” She belittles Annie, telling her that the world doesn’t “need a smart-mouthed little rat,” and saying that because the world doesn’t need Annie, that’s why Annie’s in foster care. She also tells her, “You’re only here because I get $157 a week from the state for you.” She later. She wakes the girls by spraying them with water, and withholds food until they complete their chores.
She tells the children, “Clean like your life depends on it, because it does.” Her cruelty has impacted the foster kids’ view of the world. They sing, “Instead of kisses, we get kicked; no one cares for you a bit, when you’re a foster kid.” Miss Hannigan cruelly kicks Annie out of her home, telling her, “I told the inspector I don’t want to foster you any more. As of next week, you’re somebody else’s problem… Not a who, a where. A group home. Maybe that’ll teach you to open your mouth.” Miss Hannigan also cooperates in having Annie abducted by imposter parents.