They

Posted on April 23, 2018 at 6:57 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Issues of non-gender-conforming adolescence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie (gender and ethnicity)
Date Released to Theaters: April 23, 2018
Copyright 2018 Mass Ornament Films

Trans kids generally know who they are, even when they are very young. They don’t tell their families they want to be a gender different from their body parts. They say they are that gender, and it is usually their families who have to reframe their understanding of the boy or girl they thought they had. Even the most certain of children and the most understanding and supportive of families face a wrenching challenge as the child approaches adolescence. Do you block puberty with medication to preserve the child’s choices about gender until age 18? Secondary sex characteristics for the wrong gender can be intensely traumatic. But the medication can have side effects.

“They” and “their” are the preferred pronouns for the lead character, known just as J, and played by a trans actor named Rhys Fehrenbacher. J is a young teenager who is having an adverse reaction to the puberty blockers and has to decide what to do. J’s parents are away caring for another family member, their return home delayed, and J’s brisk but not uncaring sister Lauren (Nicole Coffineau) and her Iranian boyfriend, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini) have come to stay with J until their parents return.

Writer/director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh gives the film a lyrical, meditative quality. J’s parents, sister, Araz, and doctor are all understanding and supportive, if distracted. They are all so accepting that no one seems to think J might need to talk about the momentous decisions they are confronting.

We see J reciting Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, The Mountain:

I do not mean to complain.
They say it is my fault.
Nobody tells me anything.
Tell me how old I am.

The deepest demarcations
can slowly spread and fade
like any blue tattoo.
I do not know my age.

We see many moments in nature, as though to locate J’s transitions within the context of the natural world. Lauren and Araz are both preoccupied with their own personal and professional liminal challenges as well. There is also a long, seemingly improvised section that takes place in the home of one of Araz’s relatives, with Lauren and J at a large family party. Throughout, it almost seems as though we are eavesdropping on bits and pieces of the J’s world.

That is not always successful, and some of the choices are heavy-handed. But thankfully, it is not didactic or preachy. J may not know what they want, but Ghazvinizadeh has confidence that they will make the right choice, and trusts us to root for them.

Parents should know that this movie deals obliquely but frankly with issues of non-binary gender.

Family discussion: How do the boys with the bicycle feel about J? What should J do?

If you like this, try: the “I am Jazz” series on television

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Love, Simon

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family situations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: June 11, 2018

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018
If you are scrolling through Netflix you may run across movies like 2000’s The Truth About Jane, where family or friends discover that someone is gay, get upset, try to deny it or force the gay person into therapy, and then learn in time for a big happy ending at a Pride parade that love is what matters, no matter who the person they love loves. A lot has happened in 18 years, and thankfully we are pretty much past the point where a story about a family freak-out over the discovery that someone is gay is worth making a movie about. Yet there are two elements that are notable about “Love, Simon.” It is the first major studio romantic comedy about a gay teenager. And, much more notable, the real issue is not about his being gay; it is just about his being a teenager.

Love, Simon” is based on the award-winning book by psychologist Becky Albertalli. It is indeed a comedy. There are many very funny lines, and gems of comic performances by two of the adults in the film. The always-great Tony Hale (“Veep”) plays a high-spirited vice-principal who likes to confiscate cell phones and act like a princi-PAL, and Natasha Rothwell (“Insecure”) is absolutely hilarious as a put-upon drama teacher forced to direct a production of “Cabaret” that is required to include every student who wants to be in the cast. Making the adults in the story the comic relief is a very nice touch.

And it is definitely a romance. I can’t remember when I’ve heard an audience respond with cheers and applause as joyous as they did when the big kiss moment finally arrived. But what makes this film really special is that is about feelings everyone has — the feeling of being alone, outside some sort of magic circle everyone else seems to know how to get inside, the worry about letting people down, the soul-shrinking experience of actually letting them down even more than you feared, the terror of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, the joy of being seen and understood.

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer”) plays Simon, a high school senior who has everything — loving, generous parents (who also happen to be gorgeous — Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner), a cute kid sister, and great friends with whom he shares “way too many iced coffees, bad 90’s movies, and gorge on carbs at the Waffle House.” His life is just about perfect except that he has not been able to find a way to tell anyone that he is gay.

The school has a gossipy website where a student who calls himself Blue says that he is gay but cannot come out. So Simon writes him as “Jacques” and the two of them instantly fall into a close, supportive friendship with perhaps a little bit of flirting. What makes this really great in the film is that it allows/requires Simon (whose full name, as he points out, means “he who hears” and “he who sees”) to look at every male student in the school differently, as he wonders which one is Blue and even pictures different students in the situations Blue describes. That experience, as much as the correspondence itself, widens his world and makes him more empathetic, similar to the different perspectives in last year’s “Wonder.”

An obnoxious student discovers the correspondence and threatens to publish it unless Simon helps him get close to Abby, a transfer student who has become a part of Simon’s group of friends.

A brief fantasy sequence about what being gay might be like in college is a lot of fun, and a scene where Simon imagines that heterosexual teens should have to come out to their parents is sharply funny. But what makes this movie special is its tender heart. It is wise about friendships, about those first tentative steps toward intimacy, about being honest, not just about what you are but who you are, and about the unforgettable tenderness of that first kiss.

Parents should know that the theme of this film is a gay high schooler struggling to come out and it includes kisses, a brief crude sexual reference, teen drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why could Simon tell Blue and Abby before Leah and his family? Would you like to have a “Secrets” website for your school?

If you like this, try: “G.B.F.,” “Never Been Kissed,” and “Easy A”

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The Glass Castle

Posted on August 10, 2017 at 5:41 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, alcohol and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, child badly burned in a cooking accident, child neglect and endangerment
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 11, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 6, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
In her 1986 best-seller, Necessary Losses, author/poet Judith Viorst talks about the beliefs each of us has to give up in order to move forward. The first and in some ways the most difficult is the understanding that our parents are not all-powerful and all-knowing, and that they cannot kiss all of our hurts and troubles away forever. Some of those realizations are worse than others. Most of us, I hope, do not have to give up on the idea that our parents at least want to take care of us and that they do their best. But parents who neglect or abuse their children take away something worse than food and safety; they take a child’s senses of trust and pride.

And so “The Glass Castle,” based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, begins with Walls, a sophisticated, elegant, and successful New York journalist (Oscar-winner Brie Larson) on her way home in a cab after dinner in an expensive restaurant with her fiance and his prospective client, seeing her parents dumpster diving. They were homeless.

And so, we go back in time to see her as a very young child, telling her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) she is hungry. “Would you rather me make you some food that will be gone in an hour or finish this painting that will last forever?” It is a rhetorical question. Young Jeannette (Chandler Head) toddles over to the stove to make herself some hot dogs. But her dress catches on fire and she is badly burned.

When her father, Rex (Woody Harrelson) decides to take her out of the hospital, without doctor permission and without paying. At this point, Jeannette is still young enough to believe everything her parents tell her, like “our home goes wherever we go.” Rex, probably self-medicating for undiagnosed bipolar disorder, was immensely brilliant and charismatic. The glass castle of the title was the home he kept promising to build the family, and he spent years drawing plans for it. Rex and Rose Mary were less and less able to maintain any kind of stability at the same time that the children became more and more aware of what they were entitled to expect and unlikely to get. Instead of excitedly making plans for the castle, they began pleading with him to stop drinking. And then, when he could not, they decided to take responsibility for themselves and each other.

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton worked with Larson in the outstanding “Short Term 12,” which also had themes of abuse, damage, and resilience. He is especially good here in dealing with the challenge of three different performers, some quite young, portraying Jeannette and her siblings, maintaining consistency as they grow up, but using the cinematography to help convey the journey from their glowing memories of childhood, believing in their parents’ view of the world as beneath them, to the grittier life of deprivation and uncertainty. The spot where the glass castle was supposed to be built literally becomes a garbage dump.

What’s wisest and most significant is that the film becomes more than the story of survival. It is really only when Jeannette stops being afraid to tell the truth about herself that she is able to accept the best of what Rex and Rose Mary brought to her life. As Walls — and Viorst — might agree, necessary losses are worth the pain when they lead to the freedom that only comes from being true about and to yourself.

Parents should know that this film concerns the neglect and abuse of children, parents with substance abuse and mental illness problems. It includes smoking, drinking and drunkenness, domestic abuse, a child burned in a fire, strong language, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why did Jeanette decide to tell her story? What was she grateful for receiving from her parents? If there was a movie about your family, who would you like to play you?

If you like this, try: “Running with Scissors,” “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” (another real-life story with Woody Harrelson as a father with a drinking problem), and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” and the book by Walls

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted on July 6, 2017 at 5:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some teen language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action/fantasy peril and violence, chases, explosions, guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: October 16, 2017

This latest version of Spider-Man is a homecoming indeed, taking us back to the teenage Peter Parker, a bright kid going to high school in Queens, trying to figure out how to talk to the prettiest girl on the Academic Decathlon as he is also trying to figure out what it means to have the great responsibility that comes with great power. Holland, less soulful and more excitable than his recent predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. In this version (thankfully omitting the radioactive spider bite origin story), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is just 15 years old, a high school sophomore, and that means that everything that is happening to him is equally momentous, whether it’s a school field trip to Washington DC for the Decathlon or another kind of field trip that involves an all-out battle with members of the Avengers fighting each other.

We got a glimpse of Holland as Spider-Man and Marisa Tomei as a very young and appealing Aunt May at the end of the last Avengers movie, “Captain America: Civil War,” when Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) brings him to the big fight. This movie reminds us that is where we left off by letting us revisit that episode through Peter’s eyes. Of course if Tony Stark comes to get you and you end up stealing Captain America’s shield in a huge intramural Avengers battle, and you’re just 15 years old, you’re going to be super-excited and you’re going to record it all on your smartphone.

And once the battle is over, he’s going to be back to his regular life of school during the day and very polite crime-fighting at night, explaining his absences to Aunt May and his friends by saying he has a special internship with Stark Industries. Peter is eager to get back into the big leagues: “I feel like I could be doing more.” But Stark and his aide, Happy (“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) tell him to stay home and work on his skills. “Just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” Stark says, and Happy warns, “I’m responsible for seeing that you’re responsible.” But he does give Peter a very cool Spark-designed super-suit with many upgrades, and seeing Spidey discover and master them is a big part of the fun.

Michael Keaton plays the bad guy, bringing some of his comic-book vibe from “Batman” and “Birdman.” His character is Adrian Toomes, who is initially given the salvage contract to dispose of the mess left after a super-battle. When his group is replaced, putting the survival of his company in peril, he liberates some of the alien weapons left behind and becomes an arms dealer, ruthless in business but devoted to his family.

The film goes back and forth between superhero action and a John Hughes style teen movie, with with affectionate references to “Ferris Bueller,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “The Breakfast Club.” There is a nerdy best friend (Jacob Batalon as Ned), a way-out-of-his-league girl (Laura Harrier as Liz), a girl with some potential (Zendaya, wryly hilarious), a school field trip for the Academic Decathlon (with a rescue at the Washington Monument), a Spanish quiz, and a prom, all interrupted by some wild stunts, including a split-down-the-middle Staten Island ferry and a world-depends-on-it hijacking of some of the Avengers’ most important objects.

It’s funny (keep an eye out for Captain America’s school videos), it is exciting (the action scenes are very well paced), and it is smart, not overlooking the chance to compare Toomes’ weapon sales to unsavory characters to Stark’s. Holland is an immensely appealing Peter, young but already very much a hero. His super-challenges keep interfering with his teenage rites of passage, but my spidey-sense tells me he’s just right for the job.

NOTE: Stay ALL the way to the end for a second and very funny credits scene featuring one of the Avengers.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic-book/fantasy action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, chases, explosions, murder, and some teen language and sexual humor.

Family discussion: How does this differ from other Spider-Man movies? Why does Peter say no to Tony?

If you like this, try: more Marvel movies and some John Hughes movies, too

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The Edge of Seventeen

Posted on November 17, 2016 at 5:42 pm

Copyright 2016 STX
Copyright 2016 STX
A psychiatrist once told me that just as an infant can have fevers that would be lethal in an adult, a teenager can have symptoms that would be evidence of psychosis at any other stage of life. Mood swings, the feeling that everyone is looking at you, disordered thinking, bizarre appearance: you might be having some sort of breakdown, or you just might be an adolescent. Stories about that intensely traumatic age connect to those of us who have been through it and those who are in the midst of it with a visceral sense of recognition, and, if we’re lucky, a bittersweet humor.

“Edge of Seventeen,” written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, captures the intensity and chaos and drama drama drama of this age. Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, who, like many 17-year-olds, is certain that she is the only person on earth who truly understands what it is to suffer. She actually has experienced a terrible loss, the death of her father, which has left her remaining family fragile. Her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner of “Everybody Wants Some!!”) compensates by being perfect in every disgusting way possible, from Nadine’s perspective. He is handsome, talented, athletic, and popular. That leaves nothing left for her but to be awkward and miserable.

The only thing good in her life, she thinks, is her endlessly supportive and understanding BFF Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who sympathizes with Nadine about the misery of having no father, a perfect brother, and a crush on an unattainable boy who works at Petland in the mall (Alexander Calvert as Nick). She also has a teacher named Mr. Bruner, played with perfectly dry, understated wit by Woody Harrelson, who knows teenagers well enough to understand that the best way to reassure Nadine is not to try to comfort her. When she trounces into the classroom where he is eating lunch alone to tell him she has to kill herself, he responds by noting mildly that in fact she has just interrupted his own creation of a suicide note. “As some of you know, I have 32 fleeting minutes of happiness per school day during lunch which has been eaten up again and again by the same especially badly dressed student and I finally thought, you know what, I would rather have the dark, empty nothingness.” She thinks she wants everyone to be as fraught as she is. He knows how to strike just the right balance of detachment and sympathy.

So when she tries to cancel a sexually explicit invitation to Nick but accidentally sends it instead, Mr. Bruner is there to take a look and point out that she should be more careful about run-on sentences. The reason she is talking to him about it instead of Krista is that Krista, the single good thing in her life, has committed the ultimate betrayal. She and Darien are in a relationship. Nadine is in such a severe state of collapse that she does not notice that there is a smart, handsome, very nice boy interested in her (Hayden Szeto in a star-making performance as Erwin).

The film itself has that same perceptive sympathy for the agonies of adulthood, allowing us to laugh at Nadine only because we know she’ll be fine — she’s going to grow up and make this movie.

Parents should know that this movie has very explicit and crude language, sexual references, and non-explicit sexual situations, a car accident with a sad (offscreen) death of a parent), and teen drinking.

Family discussion: How did Nadine, Darien, and their mother express their grief differently? Is it easier being the perfect one? What do you do to feel better?

If you like this, try: “Rocket Science,” “Thumbsucker,” and “The Duff”

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Comedy Coming of age Drama Romance School Stories about Teens
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