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'Cuties' on the dance floor ... one step forward, two steps back?

During the 1979 Academy Awards ceremony, the co-stars of the soon-to-be-released film “Just You and Me, Kid” took to the stage to present the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

As usual, they had been provided with some insipid patter — in this instance, making sure the audience knew they were presenting as co-stars, and not as a couple — before getting to the task at hand.

“You know how the studios like to spread those stories about stars being romantically involved,” said George Burns, then 83 years old.

“It sells tickets,” responded Brooke Shields, then all of 13.

“Kid,” Burns shot back, “if we were romantically involved ... I’d sell tickets.”

And a hearty laugh was shared by all.

The year before “Just You and Me, Kid” — in which her opening moments show her wearing a towel, which is subsequently lost — Shields had been in the eye of a storm of controversy for appearing in only a G-string in Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby.” Her next picture would be “The Blue Lagoon.”

The Malle film, despite the protests, was deemed to be art. The movie with Burns was given a pass for being a comedy. And “The Blue Lagoon”? Well, it was so memorably bad that it’s best remembered for Shields being forced to glue her hair to her exposed breasts to avoid yet another controversy.

If the films of Shields’s youth were merely a comet across the horizon line between acceptance and exploitation, some 40 years (chronologically) and a million years (socially) later, the topic of how far is too far when it comes to children has reappeared in the sky.

Taking center stage is the French film “Mignonnes” — renamed “Cuties” for streaming on Netflix — a cultural coming-of-age story, directed by a woman, that centers on the desire for acceptance into a pre-teen dance team by the new girl in town.

Maïmouna Doucouré, the director, says in a piece for The Washington Post that she wanted to make the film “in the hope of starting a conversation about the sexualization of children.”

Doucouré says she spoke with more than 100 girls ages 10 and 11, and found that they were so influenced by what they’d come across on social media that they would decide to follow in the same steps.

“They saw that the sexier a woman is on Instagram or TikTok, the more likes she gets,” Doucouré wrote. “They tried to imitate that sexuality in the belief that it would make them more popular.”

And this, of course, is where the line of demarcation comes into play for each of us to draw.

The dance team in “Cuties” is not very successful until the new girl, Amy, comes across the notion to reject the strictness of her cultural background and incorporate twerking into the girls’ routine.

They do so and at the same time switch to more revealing dance outfits, adult makeup jobs and add other suggestive moves that would suggest a worldliness that the girls have yet to understand, never mind achieve.

“It is only in seeing the shock on parents’ faces in the audience,” Doucouré says, “that Amy realizes that these dance routines bring no freedom at all.”

The director describes the precautions and rules that were taken on the set of the film, including the presence of a child counselor, to present the case that her film is not itself child exploitation, but is about a serious topic for discussion.

I’ve quoted the director here because it is her movie and her sincerity about the subject matter should not be lost amidst the sound and fury accompanying the release of “Cuties.”

And it’s that ruckus, as the film downloads into a deeply divided America, that proves yet again a mantra from the late film critic Roger Ebert:

“It’s not what a movie is about (that matters,” he’d say. “It’s how it is about it.”

“Cuties” — even with a scene that depicts (but does not show) a pre-teen girl posting a photo of her genitalia on social media — was given the approval of the child protection authorities of the French government.

But what works for the French doesn’t always play in Peoria, or anywhere else in the land of Freedom Fries.

Spurred by a trending #cancelNetflix hashtag, subscribers have left the streaming service this past week at a rate eight times those doing so a month ago.

Members of the United States Congress — a morally pure swamp if there ever was one — are building soapboxes and calling for hearings.

The trailer for the film on YouTube — with segments of the eventual routine juxtaposed with the lives of the girls off the dance floor — had (as of the moment this was written) received 52,000 “thumbs up” and 2 million “thumbs down.”

A woman with whom I’m very well acquainted has been dancing for more than 50 years. When young performers show up on such television competition shows as “World of Dance” or “So You Think You Can Dance,” nothing angers and frustrates her more than seeing them in revealing outfits performing suggestive routines.

“They can dance,” my acquaintance will say. “Why do they need to do this?”

Good question.

This type of cultural quicksand was played for squeamish laughs in the Oscar-nominated 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine,” where young beauty pageant contestant Olive dances to “Super Freak” in a routine she was taught by her grandfather.

The scene works as intended because the build-up is more important than the dance moves, and the focus is on the reactions of pageant officials, the action taken by her family after things go awry ... and, well, because at that instant Grandpa is “in the trunk of our car.”

No one with a functioning heart, mind or soul is in favor of child exploitation ... not even the politicians and “elites” accused by opponents as being part of a cabal that kidnaps kids so they can be devoured by demon spirits.

“The movies that are made more thoughtfully, or made with more ambition,” Ebert said, “often just get drowned out by the noise.”

And, not to go full-Stewart here, but we all know what we can handle when we see it.

As audience members, we know how much we can stomach in terms of how films depict racism, nudity, violence, foul language, animal cruelty and various displays of prejudice — which usually spur the same type of debate triggered by “Cuties.”

When such a piece of popular culture (on any important topic) appears on the horizon, I ask myself whether it’s possible in our society for it to accomplish anything other than reinforce belief systems already in place.

Those most critical of the film aren’t likely to watch it. Others will avoid it for the subject matter itself, satisfied they understand the issue without having to watch it played out over two hours.

The question for “Cuties” becomes: Does it move the needle of human compassion any more than when Brooke Shields shot across the sky?

The answer, as always, isn’t on the screen ... but in the audience.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com

Robert Galvin