’44 PAGES’ highlights youth in heartfelt fashion


Preston Barta // Editor

If you were ever bored in the waiting room at the doctor’s office as a kid, you may remember picking up Highlights for Children. It’s that colorful children’s magazine with all the fun pictures, stories and puzzles inside. Perhaps sections such as “Hidden Pictures,” “Ask Arizona” and “Goofus and Gallant” flood in cherished memories from the past.

There was something extraordinary about that time in our lives when we’d pick up that special magazine, connect with the stories within those 44 pages and explore a world of imagination and creativity that much of modern technology seems to push us away from.

The impeccably titled documentary 44 PAGES homes in on this fact. It also provides viewers with a golden ticket opportunity to explore the publication’s history and how fiercely dedicated its employees are to making a difference and helping children understand the world around them.

“Being around the people of Highlights and knowing just how considerate they are with every detail, it made me considerate of them as subjects,” director Tony Shaff (TEEN MOM 2, HOTLINE) said in a recent interview. “It’s reassuring to know a magazine and people such as this exist and that good information is being pumped out into young brains.”

Shaff captures Highlights in such a way that makes its staff feel as though they are part of a family you both know and love. Never do the subjects try to put on a show, manipulate your emotions or impress you. Every image shown and word that is spoken in the film comes from an honest place.

“The film does what the magazine does,” said producer Rebecca Green (IT FOLLOWS, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS). “These are the kind of films that I respond to as a viewer: the ones where you think you know what it’s about and how it’s going to unfold from the outside looking in, but when you step back, you get a different perspective. For the magazine, it’s that ‘fun with a purpose’ concept, and I think 44 PAGES has that as well.”

L-R: Director Tony Shaff, Producer Rebecca Green, Highlights for Children Editor-in-Chief Christine French Cully, Film Editor Amanda Hughes, Producer Laura Smith, Highlights For Children CEO Kent S Johnson, and DP John P Campbell. Courtesy of 44 PAGES’s Facebook Page.

Green’s producing partner, Laura Smith, agreed with the sentiment, adding, “It’s that subtlety that allows people in, too. Many documentaries, which I admire, all too often preach to the choir or are divisive. I think 44 PAGES is unifying, in a way. It brings people together and gives hope for the future.”

Some of last year’s most celebrated documentaries — whether they were about racial injustice (13TH) or tragedy (TOWER) — focused on their topics without much mercy. While these films are essential viewing, they’re not designed to leave us in high spirits. 44 PAGES also touches on trying matters, but how they’re revealed is unexpected.

What 44 PAGES made me realize was how subtle the magazine was about introducing me to the issues of the world and how to go about them. To me as a kid, everything might as well have been written and illustrated by a literary Santa Claus. I didn’t recognize that the people behind what’s on the pages are, in fact, people who are conscious of life’s unpalatable facts.

“The film addresses very tough material, but it’s not just one big call to action. It touches on many things,” Green said. “As filmmakers, we’re not going to give you the worst of everything and its every detail. We’ll simply provide you with some thoughts that you can carry with you and possibly use for good.”

“The magazine seeps into your philosophy and influences you. And as an adult, it causes you to look at children and question and think about the way they take in information,” Smith said.

As someone who’s about to be a parent, I’m constantly trying to get my hands on anything I can find on how to properly bring a child up in this world. Questions of where and how to raise children can weigh down one’s mind. But as the filmmakers of44 PAGES so eloquently state, everybody goes through obstacles in life. We all make mistakes and will be wrong, but it’s OK, because we’re not alone.

44 PAGES screened at the Dallas International Film Festival. We will keep you posted on future screenings and its release.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.