’44 PAGES’ highlights youth in heartfelt fashion

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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

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.