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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Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

Posted on July 26, 2018 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Action/comic book-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 27, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Bros. Pictures

Not another superhero movie, you say? And how far down the list of comic book characters do we have to go? The Teen Titans are way ahead of you. Silly, surreal, super-snarky, self-aware to a fault and smashing the fourth wall into smithereens, the “Teen Titans Go! to the Movies” movie is a superhero movie about a third-tier superhero who only wants to fight the bad guy because that’s how he’ll get to be in a superhero movie. Got it?

It’s got plenty of inside humor for the fanboys who will know why it’s especially apt to have Nicolas Cage providing the voice for Superman, why it’s funny to have a Stan Lee cameo in a DC movie, who the Challengers of the Unknown are, and why the arch-villain Slade (producer Will Arnett) keeps being mistaken for Deadpool. And it has action, heartwarming friendships, and plenty of potty jokes for those who have no idea who the Teen Titans are, and, believe me, will not know much more about them when the movie is over.

The Teen Titans as they are currently portrayed are Robin (Batman’s sidekick, voiced by Scott Menville), Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), who can turn himself into any animal, alien princess Starfire (Hynden Walch), who signifies her other-worldliness by inserting “the” randomly in front of other words, the gothy Ravan (Tyra Strong), who can create portals from anywhere to anywhere, and Cyborg (Khary Payton), who can adapt his metal shell to create any machine. Insulted that they are not even invited to the premiere of the new Batman movie, Robin is even more horrified to see that upcoming sequels include movies about Batman’s butler, Alfred, and even one about his utility belt, but nothing about Robin. He appeals to the director, Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell), but she says she cannot make a movie about him unless he has an arch-nemesis.

Enter Slade, “an archenemy whose name is fun to say in a dramatic way.”

There are songs. There are action scenes. There are many, many jokes about the world of comics, from the ultra-obscure (stay all the way to the end) to the widely accessible (yes, there are a lot of superhero movies and Green Lantern is still embarrassed about his). It makes fun of itself and then it makes fun of itself for making fun of itself, and then it makes fun of us for watching so many superhero movies. It is unpretentious, the look harking back to low-budget Saturday morning cartoon shows. And that makes it refreshing and delightful.

NOTE: The movie is preceded by a very cute DC superhero girls short called “The Late Batsby,” with Batgirl racing to catch up with her super-friends to fight Mr. Freeze.

Parents should know that this film includes extended cartoon-style action/superhero peril and violence, explosions, chases, fire, some characters briefly injured, potty humor, and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: If you made a movie about one of your friends, what would you include? Why did Robin want a movie so badly?

If you like this, try: the Teen Titans television series, “Incredibles 2″ and “The LEGO Movie” and “LEGO Batman”

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Puzzle

Posted on July 26, 2018 at 5:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 27, 2018

Copyright 2018 Sony PIctures Classics
Sometimes in life and often in movies, one object, one moment, one connection can make all the difference and take a character on a journey of purpose and self-discovery. In “Puzzle,” a woman who lives in a very small world discovers that she likes doing jigsaw puzzles because she is very, very good at it. As lovely a metaphor as puzzles are, it is not fitting the pieces together that changes her life. It is learning that she is good at something that has nothing to do with her family. Doing the puzzles and seeing the patterns makes her curious to learn more about the world and it makes her brave enough to find out.

Kelly McDonald is exquisite as Agnes, a Catholic woman who lives with her husband and their two sons in the house she grew up in. We first see her preparing for a party, and then we learn it is her own birthday party. She may be the guest of honor, but she is still doing all of the cooking, decorating, and serving. Her husband and sons love her without paying much attention to her.

One of her birthday gifts is a crossword puzzle. She completes it, and somehow, it completes her. And then it shows her how incomplete her life has been. She has spent decades in the same small, Catholic community. The puzzle inspires her to do something daring — take the train into Manhattan to buy another. And when she sees a notice that someone is looking for a “puzzle partner,” she does something even more daring. She lies to her family so she can find out more.

Screenwriter Oren Moverman (“Love and Mercy,” “The Dinner”) adapted the screenplay from Argentine director Natalia Smirnoff’s “Rompecabezas.” Director Marc Turtletaub gives the film a timeless quality. From the look of her home and her clothes, Agnes seems to be living a generation ago. It is a shock when one of her other birthday presents is an iPhone. She looks at it as though it was delivered by a messenger from the future. “I have a radio and a window,” she tells her son. “I know when it is going to rain.” She calls the iPhone an “alien robot.”

We see that this is a choice Agnes has made, to live in a cocoon of the past, to avoid questioning her choices because she does not want to think about the answers. Why is it puzzles, as her husband says, something for children, that inspire her to think for the first time that maybe she should look outside her home? Or make her speak up for herself and for her son? It could have been cooking difficult recipes like “Julie & Julia” or learning to drive as in “Driving Lessons” or gardening as in “Greenfingers.” It does not matter what it is that pulls characters out of themselves to take risks and learn more; what matters is whether it does and whether the story about how it does inspires that in us.

And what matters here is McDonald. Much of the movie is just her face, luminous, open, a little bit fearful, a little bit joyful. The film is wise in its exploration of the things we do to quiet our minds, even when the result is to hide from ourselves, not peace but numbness. It understands that people and even movies themselves are puzzles that, if we put the pieces together thoughtfully, give us connection, meaning, and purpose.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, family tension, references to drug use, smoking, drinking, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why did Agnes suddenly want to learn about the news? What will she do next?

If you like this, try: “Driving Lessons”

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Posted on July 19, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 20, 2018

Copyright 2018 Universal
Pretty music, pretty scenery, pretty people – here they go again, my my, and how can we resist them? Lesser songs, better singers, higher platform shoes, more romance, a horse, a goat, a boat, a romantic last-minute wedding interruption, returning cast members and a whole new group to play younger versions of the older characters.

“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” finds the young woman with three fathers (Amanda Seyfried as Sophie) about to realize her mother’s dream of a luxury hotel on the idyllic island of Kalokairi (the Greek island of Skopelos in the original, in this one the Croatian island of Vis, which gave the production tax breaks).

It is bittersweet because her mother (Meryl Streep as Donna) has died. She and her step- and one of three possible biological fathers (Pierce Brosnan), conveniently an architect, miss her dearly. “It will get better,” she reassures him. “Yes, just not quite yet,” he answers. Working on the grand opening party makes her feel closer to her mother. But she also misses Sky (Dominic Cooper), who is getting training in hotel management and has been offered a dream job half a world away. She also wishes her other two fathers could be there for the opening, straight-laced British lawyer Harry (Colin Firth), who is negotiating a big merger in Japan, and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), who is getting an award for being Sweden’s greatest person because this movie does not really care enough about minor details to Google an actual award or invent a plausible one. And why should it? This is a movie that asks us to believe Cher is Meryl Streep’s mother. And that someone could have a daughter in 1980 who would still be in her early 20’s.

While Sophie is planning “the most incredible party of all time,” the primary focus of the film is on filling in the dot, dot, dots of Donna’s origin story, from her college graduation in 1979 (the math does not really add up here, either), her friendship (and performances) with Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn as the deliciously acerbic younger version of the character played by Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Alexa Davies as the younger version of the tender-hearted character played by Julie Walter), and her encounters with Bill, Harry, and Sam (younger versions played by Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner, and Jeremy Irvine).

Lily James (“Baby Driver,” “Cinderella”) plays the young Donna, wearing gold platform boots under her graduation gown as she strides to the podium to give the graduation speech, then tosses off the gown to reveal a wild mash-up of a costume that could only be found in an ABBA performance or perhaps on display at the Bad Taste Museum in the Hall of What Were They Thinking. Her friends join her on stage for a jubilant performance of “I Kissed a Teacher,” and then bid her farewell as she embarks on her adventure. In France, she meets a shy Englishman. It is Harry. In one of the movie’s highlights, they sing and dance to a rousing “Waterloo” in a restaurant. She next meets Bill, who gives her a ride on his boat

And then she meets Sam, who wins her heart and then breaks it. By then she is pregnant, and by then she knows that this island is where she wants to make her home.

There is more skill in the crystalline harmonies, rock star poses, screen saver vistas, and segues between time and space than in the storyline, which is both too sad and too silly. Pierce Brosnan still can’t sing. The script often sounds like it was badly translated from the original Swedish. But it’s a cool treat on a hot summer evening, and let’s face it — you couldn’t escape if you wanted to.

NOTE: Wynn is the latest in five generations of one of the most luminary of show business families, including actors Ed Wynn (“Mary Poppins”) and Kennan Wynn (“Dr. Strangelove”) and writer Tracy Kennan Wynn (“The Longest Yard”). And of course, be sure to stay through the end credits for a final musical number!

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and non-explicit situations, questions of paternity, some sexual humor, childbirth scene, some mild language, and some alcohol.

Family discussion: How do you bolster your friends and family? What makes your soul shine? How do you make a complicated problem simple?

If you like this, try: the first “Mamma Mia” and “Walking on Sunshine” and read Susan Wloszczyna’s interview with Judy Craymer, who came up with the idea of turning ABBA’s songs into a play.

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