Far from the Tree

Posted on August 2, 2018 at 5:39 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to a brutal murder, tense family situations, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 3, 2018
Copyright Sundance Selects 2018

All parents at some point look at children and think, “Who is this and how did they get to be part of my family?” Children think that from time to time about their parents, too, especially when they get to their teens. “Far from the Tree,” based on the award-winning book by Andrew Solomon, is a documentary about the most extreme versions of that sense of disconnection. Solomon tells his own story about growing up gay and the incomprehension and rejection he experienced from his heterosexual parents, who exemplified the conventions of their era. But most of the focus of the film is on other families: Jason, a 41-year-old man with Down syndrome and the mother who worries about how he will manage when she is gone, a young woman and a married couple who are Little People, a teenager with autism who is finally able to communicate with his family, and the parents and siblings of a teenager who committed an unthinkable crime.

The movie raises questions about nature and nurture, about what “normal” means, and about the different but both vitally important feelings of connection and support we get from the families we are born into and the families we find because we understand each other. Loini Vivao, a Little Person in an affectionate but otherwise average-sized family, wonders, “Is there anybody out there like me?” When she attends her first annual Little People convention, her sense of wonder and acceptance is breathtaking. When she is invited to appear in the convention’s fashion show, she immediately demurs. She is too shy. But then we see her glowing as she owns the catwalk.  One of the other attendees explains why this gathering is so important: “They come to be seen.  And to disappear.”  No one looks away or stares. When everyone is little, everyone is the right size.

That makes a conference room discussion among the organization’s leaders especially poignant.  The topic is an experimental new drug that could “cure” some forms of dwarfism. Like the controversy over cochlear implants, this raises the question of whether dwarfism is something that needs to be “cured.”   “I don’t think I need to be fixed,” says Leah Smith, who, with her husband, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Joseph Stramando, show us just how “normal” their lives are, casually using various work-arounds, from a wheelchair to a flip-flop sandal to push a hotel light switch.

Jason Kingsley’s parents wanted to prove the experts wrong, and they were successful, to a point.  When Jason was born with Down syndrome, the doctor told the parents, “We send them away before attachment is formed.”  But “you don’t write off a person because of the label that he wears,” his mother explains. With a lot of support, Jason became a literal poster child for people with Down syndrome, appearing on television to show that he was keeping pace academically.  Jason has a job, delivering mail in an office. He lives with two other men with Down syndrome and they call themselves “The Three Musketeers.”  It is not what his mother envisioned for him and she is concerned about his fragile understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality.  He thinks if he can go to Norway, he can meet Elsa from “Frozen.”

The most astonishing moment in the film is when Jack Allnut, severely impaired with autism and seemingly unable to communicate or even understand what is being said to him, is given a chance to use an alphabet board. His first message is stunning. His mother says, “My God, he’s in there. It’s like I was meeting him for the first time.”  And the saddest moment is the family of the teenager who committed a terrible crime. In a way, it was like they were meeting him for the first time.  The family continues to love and support him, but his two siblings say they have decided never to have children.

They may change their minds.  This movie is not so much about the family differences we have to surmount as it is about the imperishable love that sustains us.  As Norman Mclean says in “The River Runs Through It,” “we can love completely without complete understanding.”  The true greatness of families — and of humanity — is that we choose to do so.

Parents should know that this unrated film includes discussion of a brutal murder, pregnancy and miscarriage, disabilities, sex, sad offscreen deaths, and family tensions.

Family discussion: What makes you most like the rest of your family?  What makes you different?  Who is your tribe?

If you like this, try: “A Kid Like Jake” and the book by Andrew Solomon

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Posted on August 2, 2018 at 5:29 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Off-screen self-mutilation and attempted suicide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 3, 2018

“Pray the gay away.”  That is the idea behind “gay conversion” facilities, now thankfully outlawed in fourteen states as contrary to both science and human dignity. But “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth, is set in 1993. It might as well have been 1793 for the Puritanical attitude of the God’s Promise facility the title character is sent to when her date discovers her making out with a girl on prom night.

Copyright FilmRise 2018

Cameron (a performance of exceptional sensitivity by Chloe Grace Moretz) is packed up immediately by her aunt and uncle (her parents are dead) to become a “Disciple” at God’s Promise, run by the guitar-strumming, upbeat Reverend Rick, played by John Gallagher, Jr., showing us flickers of anxiety as he tries to reassure the teens at the facility that if he could be “cured” of being gay, so can anyone. The resident bad cop to Reverend Rick’s relentless cheer is Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), who runs a tight ship, whether she is telling Cameron that she will not allow her to be called “Cam” (“Cameron is already a masculine name. To abbreviate it only exacerbates your gender confusion.”) or directing the “Disciples” to reveal their most private conflicts in publicly posted iceberg diagrams. What is important lies beneath the surface, and that is dangerous enough to sink the Titanic, she explains.  There is a pretense of choice, as Cameron is given a contract to sign, though she is underage and has no alternative.

Marsh tells the teenagers that “There’s no such thing as homosexuality. There’s only the sin we all face.”  She compares being gay to dangerous, self-destructive behavior: “Would you let drug addicts throw parades for themselves?”  And she posits the cause of what they term SSA (same-sex attraction): “too much bonding with a father over sports,” for example.

A quiet tone keeps the outrageous setting from turning into parody, even when they watch the (real) Christian workout video, “Blessercize,” and the teenagers are asked leading questions like, “When did you let same sex attraction get in the way of your goals?”  While a non-conversion facility might impose some restrictions on interactions between the boys and girls, there are few here.  Presumably, despite professed very strict rules about sexual behavior, Marsh and Reverend Rick are hoping the opposite genders will tempt each other.

The film won the top award at Sundance, a tribute to the understated mood and to an outstanding performance from Moretz, who allows us to observe her as she observes those around her. Neither she nor we are miseducated by the end.

Parents should know that this film includes explicit sexual references and situations, homophobia, some language, and marijuana.

Family discussion: What does it mean to say, “when I am weak, I am strong?” What ideas have changed since 1993?

If you like this, try: “But I’m a Teenager” and the upcoming “Boy Erased”

 

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Leave No Trace

Posted on June 28, 2018 at 5:20 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material throughout
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Pharmaceuticals
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, injury, some disturbing images, family issues, military-related PTSD
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 29, 2018

Copyright 2018 Bleeker Street
Author Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment was inspired by a news story reporting that a father and daughter were living off the grid but in plain sight, camping out in a Portland, Oregon public park. Writer/director Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) has now adapted the story in a quiet wonder of a film called “Leave No Trace,” starring Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.

Foster, who spent weeks learning survival skills, has said in interviews that with Granik’s permission he removed 40 percent of the words in the script, which wisely lets the images tell the story. We first see Will (Foster) and Tom (McKenzie) companionably doing their daily chores, completely at home with each other and the woods. They do not need to speak. Each knows exactly what to do and each motion is as familiar as a morning stretch but as precise and synchronized as an intricately choreographed tango. When Will calls a drill, Tom knows how to hide. Their world may be Edenic, just two human creatures in tune with nature, but they are also constantly on the alert. If they are spotted, they will have to leave and go to places where there are rules and walls and jobs and school.

They make regular trips to the world outside to get provisions. “Need or want?” Will asks when Tom hopeful shows him a candy bar. “Want,” she admits. But he gets it for her anyway. Their devotion to one another is deep and palpable. She trusts him completely. She is everything to him.

And then they are spotted. They are suddenly in the system. Social services does its best to respect their wish to be isolated, using the diplomatic term “unhoused” instead of “homeless,” and finding a place for them to live and a job that is as unobtrusive on their freedom as possible. But Will, who is a veteran and may have PTSD, chafes at being told what to do. Tom, on the other hand, finds that the world outside the park has some intriguing possibilities. Will engages in that most fatherly of tasks, teaching Tom to ride a bicycle. Tom gets a chance to talk to other people. There’s a boy who raises rabbits and tells her about the activities at 4H.

Will tells Tom they have to leave. In their efforts to find a new home, they encounter some obstacles, but also some people who respect the need for privacy and living off the grid.

Debra Granik has a great gift for finding extraordinary young actresses (she picked Jennifer Lawrence for “Winter’s Bone”) and guiding them through stories of subtle complexity and humanity. “Without a Trace” is on its surface a story of a father and daughter living off the grid, on the fringe of society. In reality, it is a heightened version of the relationship every parent has with a child, the irrational efforts we make to protect them from what we see as threats, and the bittersweetness of seeing them become their own people, with their own lives, destinies, and decisions. We see Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s character first as living entirely in the world her father has created for her, looking to him for everything she has to know. And then we see the small moments and realizations that lead her to believe in her own voice about her future. “Want or need?” is still the question, but they may have different answers.

Beautiful performances by McKenzie and Ben Foster, a compassionate screenplay co-written by Granik, and an intimate, naturalistic style of storytelling make this a thoughtful meditation on parents and children, on damage and courage, on communities we create, and on what we mean by home.

Parents should know that this movie’s themes include PTSD, family issues, loss of a parent, and some peril and off-screen violence.

Family discussion: What was Will trying to protect Tom from? If they had not been discovered, would Tom have made a different decision?

If you like this, try: “Winter’s Bone” and “Captain Fantastic”

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How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Posted on May 31, 2018 at 4:02 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug use and nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sci-fi peril and some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 1, 2018
Date Released to DVD: August 13, 2018
Copyright 2018 A24

Three suburban British schoolboys in the 1990’s are big fans of punk because it seems thrilling to challenge authority and pretty much everything.  But they are not very knowledgeable about anything outside of their own experience, and so when they accidentally wander into a strange party that happens to be a bunch of aliens, they just assume that they must be American girls. In How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Americans, girls, and aliens — they’re all equally unknown, and so, for these boys anyway, easy to confuse.

Neil Gaiman’s sly short story has been lovingly adapted by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Rabbit Hole”), with a breakout performance by Tony-winner Alex Sharp as Enn (short for Henry), a sweet-natured kid who, like his two best friends, loves punk and really, really, really wants to learn how to talk to girls.  Somehow, though, at parties he’s the one who ends up in the kitchen talking to someone’s mum. One night, after a punk concert, they go in search of a party they heard about but end up knocking on the wrong door.  Inside, each room has a different gathering or ritual or happening going on, all exceptionally attractive people (though one has made a mistake in manifesting and has a weird forked finger).

We know what it will take Enn the whole movie to figure out.  These are not American girls. They are aliens, on some sort of galactic tour.  And one of them, named Zan (Elle Fanning, looking far too perfect to be a human) is an alien version of punk, open-minded, curious, and inclined to break the rules. She and Enn go out exploring the world together, and they explore each other a bit, too.

The fun of all fish out of water films is seeing our world, in this case our former world, through fresh eyes. We may laugh as Zan discovers what happens when a human body processes food or speaks whatever comes into her head without understanding social norms like privacy or embarrassment. But we also appreciate her wonder at the gritty, harsh British suburb and the very things that punk is rebelling against. Her encounter with a punk queen (Nicole Kidman with gusto and evident enjoyment) is surprisingly endearing. And when Zan’s alien leaders want to interfere, well, let’s just say that it can be a real advantage to have punks on your side. A magical musical number brings everything together in quite literal terms.

Sharp is the real deal. I was struck by his performance on Broadway and really happy to see him in this film. He is able to convey innocence that comes from being true-hearted, not from a slapstick kind of awkwardness. Fanning continues to be one of the most appealing young performers in films today, always thoughtful and heartfelt. Their Romeo and Juliet romance is sweet and touching, with the adventures of Enn’s friends providing some counterpoint. Punk in this film is not angry so much as revolutionary, fueled by ideas and optimism. That may seem like an alien idea today, but Mitchell makes it seem right on time.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, sexual references and situations, teen partying, drinking, drugs, nudity, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: What does punk mean to you? What is punk today? Why didn’t Zan want to follow the rules?

If you like this, try: “Stardust” and “Coraline,” also based on books by Neil Gaiman

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Adrift

Posted on May 31, 2018 at 3:36 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, brief drug use
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 1, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 3, 2018
Copyright 2018 STX Films

If I ever decide to pursue a PhD, I think I will go for a combined film/economics degree and study the correlation between the quality of a film and the star also being the producer. There will be plenty of data.

Shailene Woodley produces and stars in “Adrift,” based on the true story of a young couple sailing across the Pacific Ocean in the early 1980’s, who were caught in a deadly hurricane. There is obviously a lot of appeal for an actress in a story of the struggle to survive with the opportunity to show courage, resilience, and determination. But the back-and-forth flashbacks weaken the intensity of that struggle and a weak script with a Gothika Rule-worthy twist ending make even a story of survival more disappointing than inspiring.

Tami (Woodley) is a free spirit as we see when the immigration official in Tahiti asks her what her profession is and she replies, “Whatever job pays me enough to get me to the next place.” She has been traveling full-time since she graduated from high school five years earlier, most recently as chef on a schooner. She meets Richard (Sam Claflin), a British Naval Academy drop-out who worked in a boatyard so that he could build his own sailboat and has been on the water pretty much full-time ever since. Though he tells her that being at sea alone is mostly being “sunburnt, sleep-deprived, seasick, or all three at once. And after a few days, there’s the hallucinations.” But there is something both of them find irresistible in sailing into the horizon, and both have an unquenchable desire to see what the world has to offer. In one of the movie’s best scenes, she says a sunset at sea is red (as in “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight”), and he makes her see all the different shades and colors within the red. While she teases him about it later, she loves seeing the world through his eyes. And he loves her spirit of adventure.

When a wealthy friend offers Richard $10,000 and two first-class plane tickets to sail his yacht to San Diego, it seems like a perfect way for them to begin their life of adventure. But we know from the movie’s first shot that they are sailing into terrible trouble. We first see Tami submerged, and then we see her come to, disoriented, in the wrecked and waterlogged hull of the yacht, with Richard gone. Later we will see their tiny ship buffeted about by waves (the special effects are fine but nothing we didn’t see in “The Perfect Storm”) interspersed with scenes of their early romance and scenes of the 41 days adrift, with no way to get help or let anyone know where they were.

I don’t want to spoil the movie’s twist here, but per the Gothika Rule will be happy to share it to anyone who writes to me at moviemom@moviemom.com. I’ll just saw that while I am sure it was a deeply spiritual and sustaining experience for Tami, it comes across poorly on screen, leaving the audience, yes, adrift.

Parents should know that this film includes intense mortal peril with severe and graphic injuries, some strong language, sexual references, nudity, brief drug use, alcohol, reference to suicide and teen pregnancy, and a sad death.

Family discussion: How many ways can you think of to describe red? Why was the frangipani so meaningful? Why did Tami say she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything? What problem-solving skills helped her the most?

If you like this, try: “Touching the Void” and “The Life of Pi”

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