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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Based on a book Coming of age DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week GLBTQ and Diversity High School movie review Romance Stories about Teens

Spare Parts

Posted on January 15, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Copyright Lionsgate 2014
Copyright Lionsgate 2014

It really happened. Four undocumented high school kids from the poorest of communities took on the most brilliant engineering students from the country’s top colleges in a robotics competition and won. The contest results were one in a million, but once it happened, the movie version was inevitable. George Lopez produced the film and stars as the students’ reluctant coach and teacher, Fredi Cameron (based on the two real-life teacher/coaches, Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi).

Unlike its robotic superstar, there is not much ingenuity in the storyline. Everything added on, especially the fictionalized backstory for Cameron, is predictable and superfluous and distracting. Lopez is an amiable presence, but these detours reveal his limits as an actor. We want to focus on the students and their robot, to see them solve problems in engineering and teamwork (which is a form of engineering, too). But too much of the running time is devoted to Cameron’s past and his possible romance with a fellow teacher, played by the always-wonderful Marisa Tomei. If she played the coach, this would have been a much better movie. Still, with a storyline like this one, it cannot help being fun to watch.

Cameron is an engineer with a PhD who tells the school’s principal (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a performance of great warmth and wit) he wants a temporary job as a substitute teacher. She notes that he has moved around a lot, but she does not have any alternatives. He agrees to coach the school’s engineering club because he is assured no one will want to join.

Oscar (Carlos PenaVega) shows up with a flier. He is an outstanding JROTC cadet and was crushed to learn that he cannot join the US Military without proof of citizenship. He thinks participating in a NASA-sponsored robotics competition will make it harder to be turned down. Cameron reluctantly agrees to help.

They assemble a team that includes the brain (David Del Rio), the kid who always gets into trouble but is a whiz at mechanics (José Julián), and the muscle (Oscar Javier Gutierrez II) — one problem they cannot engineer around is that someone has to be strong enough to lift their robot. Each has his own challenges. The brain is bullied at school. The troublemaker is under a lot of pressure to take care of his brother. The muscle has to be able to pass a tough oral exam at the competition to show that every member of the team understands the details of the robot. Oscar falls in love with a pretty classmate named Karla (sweetly played by PenaVega’s real-life wife, Alexa), but worries that his illegal status puts her at risk. All of the students are hiding from the ICE, which has already sent one of their mothers back to Mexico.

And then there is the challenge of the competition itself. Not only does this robot have to operate underwater, it has to execute an immensely complicated series of tasks in a limited time period. When the team shows up, they are so certain they will lose anyway that they decide they might as well compete with the college teams instead of the other high school teams. The night before they have to compete the robot has a disastrous leak. Their very creative and inexpensive (and hilarious) solution is one of the film’s high points.

The film’s name refers to more than the repurposed junk used to assemble the robot. Their triumph is bittersweet because their undocumented status prevents them from taking the opportunities available to those who are citizens. This film makes it clear that it is our loss, as it prevents our country from benefiting from the perseverance and skill that made an $800 robot created by kids kick the robotic butt of the $18,000 robot from MIT.

Parents should know that this film includes some teen crime including armed robbery, violence including bullying, some strong language and tense family confrontations and teen kissing.

Family discussion: What was the team’s most difficult challenge? Who was the teacher who inspired you the most and why?

If you like this, try: the book by Joshua Davis, Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream, and films like “October Sky” and “Stand and Deliver”

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Based on a true story Drama High School School Stories about Teens

23 Blast

Posted on October 23, 2014 at 3:57 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some teen drinking
Profanity: Mild schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, drinking game
Violence/ Scariness: Character becomes blind, scenes in hospital, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 24, 2014

23 Blast is the name of a football play, and “23 Blast” is based on the real story of Travis Freeman, a high school football star who lost his sight, but, with the help of a courageous coach and committed teammates, was able to keep playing.

The real hero of the movie is the coach, played by “Avatar” villain Stephen Lang, with a touch of dry with along with his determination and sense of honor. The film’s very first scene, with the coach working with a group of young boys as he learns he will be getting a job with the high school team, introduces us to him as a man of character who understands that the win that counts is the integrity and teamwork he instills in his players. And it introduces us to the tone of the film, honest, unvarnished, and real. You may think you know where a fact-based story about a blind player on a high school football team is going, but this film will surprise you.23blast

That first scene also introduces us to the boys who will become the stars of the team, Travis (a very likeable Mark Hapka) and Jerry (Bram Hoover, as the bad boy with a good heart but a weak will). They are very different people. Travis plays by the rules. He is respectful, reliable, and grounded in his faith. Bram cannot resist a party, and as for rules, they are for ignoring or for breaking. But on the football field, they have a bond. Their passion for football, and their deep understanding of its options, demands, and strategies connects them. Travis is devoted to football because it is his nature to give himself fully to whatever he takes on. Bram is devoted to football because it is the only place where he feels at home.*

One night following a game, Travis becomes ill at a party. The next day he wakes up with severe swelling on his face. His parents take him to the hospital and the doctor tells them he needs immediate surgery. “You’re going to have to take the cross off,” the nurse says as he is wheeled into the operating room. He survives the surgery, but he is blind.

At first, Travis is devastated. He will not leave his room. He refuses to cooperate with the occupational therapist (a warm and spirited Becky Ann Baker). But a dream of a sermon seemingly directed to him and a visit from the coach opens up possibilities he thought were foreclosed. “I’m going to need you to step up,” the coach tells him. “The team needs a leader. Are you that guy?”

It seems impossible. How will he run, tackle, catch? The coach makes him the center and he has to learn a whole new set of skills. But learning that he can learn is revelatory. Some of his teammates are not on board. His ties with Jerry are tested by Jerry’s irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. But the coach understands that the most important thing he can teach these players is not the techniques or strategy but the meaning of being a part of something bigger than each of them.

This is quiet, even modest storytelling, with a surprising final punch, an inspirational tale that never becomes sugary or preachy.

Parents should know that this film includes teen drinking and a drinking game. A character becomes blind and there is a sad offscreen death.

Family discussion: What do we learn from Travis’ dream about the sermon directed at him? Why was Patty able to help him? Would you be willing to have a disabled player on your team?

If you like this, try: “Brian’s Song” and “Remember the Titans”

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Based on a true story Disabilities and Different Abilities High School Movies Spiritual films Sports

When the Game Stands Tall — The Real Story

Posted on August 23, 2014 at 3:47 pm

“When the Game Stands Tall” is based on the real-life story of the De La Salle High School Spartans football team, which had the longest winning streak of any team in any sport at any level 151 games in a row over twelve years. The movie is based on what happened at the end of the streak, when one of their star players was killed and their coach, Bob Ladouceur (played by Jim Caviezel in the film) has to bring them back together. Ladouceur said that their first bus ride of the season was to their teammate’s funeral. They lost the next game.

The film is based on the book by Neil Hayes, with a foreword by John Madden about Coach Ladouceur and his team.  When people asked the coach how he was able to produce these results, game after game, year after year, he would say, “Spend a year with us.”  Hayes took him up on it, and that is what produced the book and then the film. Another book, One Great Game: Two Teams, Two Dreams, in the First Ever National Championship High School Football Game, by Don Wallace, tells the story of the championship game between the Catholic private school De La Salle and public school Long Beach Poly, .

Here is the real Bob Ladouceur.

And here are the Spartans.

Spartans who later became professional athletes:

T.J. Ward, safety for the Denver Broncos
Maurice Jones-Drew, halfback for Oakland Raiders.
Amani Toomer, wide receiver for New York Giants
Kevin Simon, linebacker for Washington D.C. football team
Matt Gutierrez, former quarterback in the National Football League
D. J. Williams, outside linebacker for the Chicago Bears
Doug Brien, kicker with San Francisco 49ers
David Loverne, guard with New York Jets
Derek Landri, defensive tackle with Philadelphia Eagles
Stephen Wondolowski, pro soccer player
Chris Wondolowski, pro soccer player
Stefan Frei, pro soccer player
John David Baker, pro baseball player
Chris Carter, pro baseball player
Jon Barry, pro basketball player
Brent Barry, pro basketball player
Kristian Ipsen, Olympic diver, bronze medalist
Aaron Taylor, former offensive lineman for Green Bay Packers

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High School Sports Stories about Teens The Real Story

If I Stay

Posted on August 21, 2014 at 6:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: The film's themes include a tragic accident, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 22, 2014
Date Released to DVD: November 17, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00NT964VS
Copyright 2014 Warner Brothers Studio
Copyright 2014 Warner Brothers Studio

Hamlet asked it best. “To be, or not to be: That is the question.” We struggle through, worrying about whether someone likes us or whether we will be accepted at the school of our choice. Those seem like serious problems. And then something really huge shows us how small those problems are, and forces us to confront the only question that matters: will we continue to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or will we obliterate ourselves, and everything we can perceive?

That is the question faced by a young cellist named Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz, in one of her first roles as a normal girl).  She has a wonderful family, loving, supportive, understanding and remarkably hip and gorgeous parents (Mireille Enos as Kat and Joshua Leonard as Denny) and a not-too-pesky kid brother named Teddy (Jakob Davies).  She has the kind of kindred spirit best friend who is always vitally interested in every detail and always on her side (“Trust’s” terrific Liana Liberato). And they are a part of a warm, loving community in Portland, Oregon that seems like an endless pot luck dinner party, seamlessly blending from one time and place to another, always filled with laughter and music.

And there is Adam (Jamie Blackley).  He is the perfect combination of untamed/angsty and utterly devoted swain. He is supposedly a punk musician, though his performances are disconcertingly pop-ish with even a bit of emo. And he says swoon-worthy things like, “You can’t hide in that rehearsal room forever. It’s too late. I see you.” Mia feels like an outsider as a classical cellist in a family of rock musicians. And, of course, she attends high school with teenagers who have no interest in orchestral music. “Right on, I love classic rock,” one of them responds when Mia tries to explain the kind of music she plays.

Adam watches Mia rehearse and instantly sees that in the most important way she is just like him. She is someone who is not just moved by music, but saved by it. She says, “I loved the order, the structure, that feeling in my chest. Like my heart is beating with the cello.” The “whole messy live for the moment punk rocker thing” does not feel right to her.

Soon Adam and Mia are a couple. But then his group becomes successful and he starts to tour. And she may have a chance to go to Juilliard, on the other side of the country.

And then there is the accident. Mia’s family takes advantage of a snow day to go off on an excursion together, but a car slips on the ice and there is a very bad crash.  The entire story is told as Mia’s spirit, alone in the limbo between life and death, able to see and hear everyone around her but not able to be seen or heard, is remembering her life, beginning to understand what has happened, and recognizing that it is up to her to decide whether to re-enter her body and fight to stay alive.

Gayle Forman‘s book is thoughtfully adapted by Shauna Cross (“Whip It”), who has a good sense of the inner lives of teenage girls. While Adam and Mia have their struggles, they are thankfully a step above the typical teenage drama (on and off-screen), and almost always respectfully handled and based in character and context and not the usual sitcom-ish miscommunication.  Moritz takes on a tough challenge in playing a character who has to express so much anxiety with so little interaction with other actors, except in flashbacks.  She does well, as does director R.J. Cutler in keeping an internal story visually engaging.  If it doesn’t have the emotional impact of recent YA weepies like “The Spectacular Now” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” it is a touching story about an appealing young couple.

Parents should know that this film has literal life-and-death situations, with a serious accident, and characters injured and killed. It also includes strong language, teen drinking, and non-explicit sexual references and situations.

Family discussion: How did their families influence the different ways Adam and Mia saw their options? Why did Mia’s grandfather tell her she could go? What would you decide and why?

If you like this, try: “The Spectacular Now,” “Save the Last Dance,” and “Bandslam” as well as the book by Gayle Forman and its sequel, told from Adam’s perspective, Where She Went

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Based on a book Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week High School Romance Stories about Teens Teenagers
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