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A lesson in leaving home too early

A quarter of the way through Leaving Home at 8, a grim and distressing film about four little girls -- Lottie, April and twins Caitlin and Simone -- from army families being packed off to boarding school while still young enough to play with teddies and dollies, questions came to mind.

What do the fathers have to say about it? What do they think of all this?

The fathers were there alright, hovering around on the edges of the picture like ghosts in a graveyard, but not speaking unless spoken to and having little to say when they did.

And then it became clear what was going on: it was the fathers, not the mothers, who wanted things this way. Army families can live a nomadic lifestyle, being shifted from place to place, and a child's education can suffer. There were some mutterings about "stability".

April's mother said her husband had been sent to boarding school. When they married, she swore no child of hers would ever be sent away. But then she gave in.

"He's won," she said. "I've only had her for eight years and I don't want to let her go yet. She's too young."

At this point, April's mother started to cry. There was a lot of crying in Leaving Home at 8 and at times it was difficult not to feel like joining in. The girls themselves spent most of their days and all of their nights crying and being comforted by staff -- who, to be fair, seem kind, caring and patient, and not at all like the old image.

But it was still painful to watch. A young child suffering needlessly, even amid English public school affluence, is always painful to watch.

Parents get to visit their children once a week, on Wednesdays, after sports. Lottie's mother came the first Wednesday but April's couldn't make it, so April wrapped herself around Lottie's mother, who she'd never met before, as if she were her own. It was heartbreaking.

As the first term wore on, Lottie began to settle in, becoming something of a leader in the dorm the four girls shared. So did the twins. But April was finding it tougher than ever and had attached herself umbilically to a gap-year student helping out at the school. Gradually, it became a film about April and her mother.

The weekend visits home were particularly emotional and returning to school afterwards was a harrowing wrench.

April's mother made soothing, reassuring noises to her daughter about seeing her soon, yet you felt the one she was really reassuring was herself.

Near the end of the term, however, April had also begun to settle down. The tears dried up and the self-confidence and self-assertion began to blossom.

When asked what she missed about home, she invariably said "seeing mum" (dad, strangely enough, never merited a mention).

For a little girl of eight, she suddenly seemed bracingly self-reliant; practically an independent entity, in fact.

The question the film left dangling in the air, unasked and unanswered, was what long-term psychological effects separation from her mother has on a girl. Maybe the cameras should return when April's 18 and find out.

TOMORROW: Pat reviews Young, Angry and White (C4)