Instant Family

Posted on November 15, 2018 at 5:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and some peril and accidents, brief disturbing images of injuries, family confrontations, issues of foster care
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018

Copyright 2018 Paramount Pictures
An adoptive mom explained to me once that most couples who adopt have “a drag-er and a drag-ee.” That can be the essence of a good partnership; parenting in any form is one of life’s greatest leaps into the unknown and it makes sense to talk it out thoroughly while understanding that no one can ever understand the terror, the exhaustion, the way children “push buttons you didn’t know you had,” and of course the unparalleled joy of being a parent until you get there, by which time you are probably too terrified, exhausted, and, yes, filled with joy to understand it even then. That is why we gravitate to movies like “Instant Family.” They give us a chance to think about how much our families mean to us.

“Instant Family,” based in part on the real-life story of writer-director Sean Anders, tells us everything we need to know about Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) in the first scene, as they race through a decrepit mess of a house thrilled at the possibilities only they can see. Their optimistic vision and instinctive teamwork will be needed when a half joking remark about adopting an older child to catch yup with their contemporaries leads Ellie to start looking at websites about foster parenting and then to being the drag-er to Pete’s drag-ee. “This is what we do! We see potential in things and fix them up!” But of course, as someone said, adults do not make children; children make adults. The parents get some fixing up, too.

After some foster parent training, they go to a “foster fair,” to meet some of the children who are available. They were not planning to foster a teen, but they are drawn to a remarkably self-possessed girl named Lizzy (Isabela Moner) (and a bit intimidated by her, too). The social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer) tell them she has two younger siblings. They are daunted by the idea of going from zero kids to three all at once, but understand the importance of keeping them together and cannot resist their adorable photos. The next thing they know, they are calling out, “Kids! Dinner is ready!” and wondering whether it will be reassuring or intrusive to kiss them goodnight.

You can tell Anders (“Daddy’s Home”) has been through it and has spent time with other foster families. The film has well-chosen details of the two steps forward-one step back relationship with the children, especially Lizzie, who is used to taking care of her brother and sister herself and still hopes that their mother will come for them. It is frank about the issues of fostering children of different ethnicities, the ambivalent feelings about the possibility of the biological mother returning, and the moments when Pete and Ellie wonder if they’ve done the right thing, and if not loving the children immediately makes them horrible people. Ellie says at one point that she feels like she is babysitting someone else’s kids. And she’s right. They don’t become hers because a social worker says so or because a judge says so. They become hers because she does not give up. And because she fights for Lizzie. And because she brushes Lizzy’s hair so gently and lovingly.

Wahlberg and Byrne are perfectly cast and the tone and pacing are exactly right for depicting family life, where tears are mixed with laughter and laughter is mixed with tears. They are hilariously funny and also touching and moving. There’s great support from Notaro and Spencer and from Margo Martindale as a feisty grandmother, and Moner is excellent as Lizzy whether she’s being defiant, manipulative, protective, or vulnerable. This story could have been cloying or it could have been soap opera. But Anders and his cast make it into a genuinely heartwarming experience that makes us wish we could be part of their family, too.

Parents should know that this is a warm-hearted comedy that is frank about some of the issues presented in foster parenting and adoption including trauma and neglect, drug abuse, predatory behavior and sexting, with some strong language.

Family discussion: What were the biggest challenges Pete and Ellie faced and how well did they deal with them? What is the best way to help kids in the foster program?

If you like this movie, try: “Room for One More” with Cary Grant and his then-wife Betsy Drake

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Boy Erased

Posted on November 1, 2018 at 5:20 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic, disturbing rape scene
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

“Boy Erased” is the second major feature film released in 2018 about Christian “gay conversion” facilities (the documentary “Far from the Tree” touched on gay conversion therapy). It is based on the experience of and expose by Garrard Conley, “Boy Erased” might better be called “Boy Ineradicable” because it is the story of a college student who is at first genuinely grateful to be sent to the conversion facility to be “cured,” but there realizes, contrary to and because of that experience, that those who do not understand that he is healthy and love him as he is and for who he is — those are the people in need of conversion.

Home movies show us Jared (as he is called in the film, played by Lucas Hedges) as an only child growing up with devoted and loving parents. His father, Marshall (Russell Crowe) is a preacher and a prosperous owner of a car dealership. He is a sincere and honest man of faith, preaching redemption, not fire and brimstone. Jared’s mother is Nancy (Nicole Kidman), with blonde bouffant hair, perfect manicure, and sparkly sense of style. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace; He for God only, she for God in him.”

Jared is a high school basketball player with a pretty cheerleader girlfriend and a brand new car as a birthday gift. But he pushes her away when she tries to get physical, telling her he wants to wait. In college, a handsome student invites him to join him in running and come to his church — and then he rapes Jared. Afterward, he cries, confesses he has done it before, and begs Jared not to tell. And then he pretends to be a counselor, and calls Jared’s parents to tell them that their son has been engaging in homosexual activity.

Jared at first denies it, and does not tell them the truth about the rape. But then he confesses that he does think about men. Marshall consults with senior clergy, and packs Jared off to what begins as a twelve-day live-out program run by a group gruesomely called Love in Action,” run by Victor Sykes (writer/director Joel Edgerton). Sykes tells the young people sent to his facility to make a moral inventory and to list all family members who have sinned, helpfully giving a list of categories to assign, from gang activity to gambling, alcoholism and drug abuse, and homosexuality. “None” is not an acceptable answer.

At first, Jared tries to change. But as he witnesses the abusive tactics, from humiliation to “recommendations” that the participants be switched from live-out, short-term care to live-in care for an indeterminate period, he begins to understand that he is not the one with the problem. Later, we see how his mother and father diverge in their ability to accept him for who he is.

Edgerton’s writing, directing, and performance are all first-rate here. He has said that the issue of imprisonment has scared and fascinated him all his life, and he powerfully creates the sense of claustrophobia and abandonment of the Love in Action facility, and the inept but extremely damaging techniques that exemplify the experiences of almost 700,000 people. His fellow Aussies Crowe and Kidman create real, human portraits, not caricatures. Kidman has two outstanding scenes showing us how Nancy resolves the conflicts between what she has been taught and the love of her son. In his big scene, Crowe shows us a man who is struggling with that conflict. “I sought the counsel of wiser men,” he says, and really, that is what it is all about. How do we decide who is wiser? The information about the main characters at the end provides a powerful coda. Flea is fine in a small role as one of the instructors at the facility, who confesses his own sins and tries to teach the participants how to stand in a manly way.

Hedges continues to impress with his exceptionally thoughtful performances, following his work in “Manchester by the Sea,” “Lady Bird,” and the upcoming “Ben is Back.” He shows us Jared’s vulnerability but also his resilience, and the essential decency that leads him to be true to himself because of his empathy for what the others are going through. This movie should do that for us as well.

Parents should know that this film concerns “gay conversion” with abusive and homophobic activities, a brutal rape scene, sexual references, some strong language, and brief drug use.

Family discussion: Why did Jared’s parents have different ideas about what was best for him? Who are the “wiser” people you consult for advice and why?

If you like this, try: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “But I’m a Cheerleader”

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Posted on October 25, 2018 at 5:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use
Profanity: Pervasive strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 26, 2018

Copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight
It is important to note that it is not Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) who is asking for forgiveness in the title of this film. It is the acerbically witty Dorothy Parker, author of a jaunty poem about the downsides of the various options for committing suicide that ends “You might as well live.” Okay, it is not exactly Dorothy Parker. It is Israel pretending to be Dorothy Parker. Lee Israel, best-selling author of popular and respected biographies of mid-century celebrities Dorothy Kilgallen and Tallulah Bankhead found herself desperate for money — and for some sense of a place in the world — when her next biography flopped and no one would work with her. The book’s failure with the critics and the public was only part of the reason. Lee Israel had become a bitter and unpleasant person and, both cause and effect, she had also become an alcoholic.

And so, instead of immersing herself in the lives of those more talented and successful to write about them, she immersed herself in the lives of famous authors to write for them. After a chance opportunity to steal and sell a genuine piece of correspondence, she began to forge others. Collectors love to own signed letters from their favorite writers, and Lee Israel loved writing them and getting away with it. She even went out and bought vintage typewriters and mastered the art of duplicating their signatures. At last, she is a successful writer again!

Well, for a while.

The movie is uneven, sometimes sordid, as Lee and her only friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) go from genteel poverty to near-squalor. Uncomfortably, the movie seems to suggest near the end that all of this had some merit as a way for Israel to find her own voice. After she was caught and after her guilty plea, she wrote another book, the basis for this film, finally in her own voice, telling her own story.

The performances are what make the movie worth seeing. Every one of them is a gem. McCarthy and Grant show us the flickers of raw honesty from near-feral people who mostly cannot bring themselves to acknowledge how far they are from where they think they deserve to be. Dolly Wells, as the trusting soul who purchases some forged letters, Jane Curtain as Israel’s businesslike but not unkind agent, and Anna Devere Smith in a knockout of a scene as Israel’s ex are all thoughtful, nuanced, committed, and compelling.

In Israel’s forged Dorothy Parker letter, “Can you ever forgive me?” is coy, self-consciously self-mocking, but mocking the recipient, too. That is the voice of Israel, too, and even an actor as irresistible as McCarthy cannot make us feel sympathetic for her.

Parents should know that this film includes pervasive very strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, drinking and alcoholism, drugs, and criminal activity including fraud and theft.

Family discussion: Why was Lee proud of the letters she forged? Why was it hard for her to get along with people? What do we learn from Elaine?

If you like this, try: Lee Israel’s books and “84 Charing Cross Road”

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Beautiful Boy

Posted on October 18, 2018 at 5:18 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug content throughout, language, and brief sexual material
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Extended and explicit substance abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, peril, serious medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 19, 2018

Copyright Amazon Studios 2018
Timothee Chalamet gives one of the most sensitive and compelling performances of the year in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the books by journalist David Sheff (Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction) and his son Nic Sheff (Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines). The story is a conventional tale of a prodigal son almost lost to drugs, but Chalamet’s performance is extraordinary, more than fulfilling the promise he showed last year in “Call Me By Your Name.”

While both books formed the basis for the film, most of it is from the perspective of the father, David (Steve Carell), who lives in a dream of a home in Marin County with his artist/earth mother of a second wife (Maura Tierney, great as always) and two angelic small children. David lives a dream writer’s life, with profiles of the world’s most accomplished and interesting people in publications like Rolling Stone. He has a warm, loving relationship with his son from the first marriage, Nic (Chalamet). Perhaps because he likes to think of himself as young and does not want Nic to think of him as out of touch, perhaps because he and Nic’s mother are divorced and he wants to make sure his time with his son is pleasant, perhaps because he is too indulgent, when Nic offers him some weed, he laughs and takes a couple of hits. After all, Nic is doing so well in school and is so gifted and so, well, beautiful (even Chalamet’s stunning performance cannot distract us from the wonder of his hair), and it’s a beautiful day, so why not?

David does not know that Nic has gone past some recreational marijuana use. He is addicted to methamphetamines, and as we will learn from the expert David consults (Timothy Hutton), that drug changes the brain chemistry to make the addiction especially intractable. Apparently he has not been truthful about why he is there. The doctor thinks it is for a magazine story. But when David explains he is there for personal reasons, the doctor is sympathetic. David says he has just two questions: What is this doing to Nic and how can he help? Both answers are far from what he had hoped.

The movie goes back and forth in time, intended to show us David’s painful memories of happier times and his increasing understanding of how little he can do to fix this problem. But it gets discursive and distracting, making it difficult for the story to gain momentum.

And it never gets past the privileged, secular version of revival meeting testimony, another “was blind but now I see” story of a prodigal son who hit bottom, then went lower, then went even lower, and then found his way home, in part because he was born into a family that made it possible to treat his addiction as youthful folly and a medical problem and not a crime.

Carell is very good as the anxious, frustrated, and embarrassed father, who keeps trying to insist that he and Nic were closer than most fathers and sons, and that “this is now who we are” until he has to admit that this is exactly who they are. But it is Chalamet who takes this out of the category of just another Lifetime movie about heartbreak in suburbia. While the movie goes back and forth in time, Chalamet is always astonishingly precise about where Nic is on his slide to the bottom, whether he is strung out, in denial, trying to manipulate his family, terrified, or just whacked out of his head. It’s a dozen performances in one, each one a complex, beautifully observed portrait.

It is too bad it is not in a better movie. Perhaps because it tries to cover both books, it lacks focus. What is the lesson here? That parents have to accept that they cannot fix their children? That this country needs a better drug policy? Most likely it is that if you’re going to be a teenage drug addict, it’s better to be from a white family with money to pay for repeated stints in rehab.

Parents should know that this film focuses on drug addiction, with extensive and explicit substance abuse, strong language, medical issues, and sexual references and a situation.

Family discussion: Could Nic’s parents have done anything different to help him? How do the lyrics of the title song help to explain the movie’s themes?

If you like this, try: “thirteen,” “Ben is Back,” and “Augusta Gone”

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First Man

Posted on October 11, 2018 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, characters injured and killed, sad death of a child
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 12, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
On September 12, 1962, nine months after his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy issued a daunting challenge to America, already behind the Soviet Union in the space race. He promised to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade so that the first trip to space would not be “governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.” He said,

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

The extraordinary story of the space race that followed has been covered by many books and movies. But none have taken us so literally inside the trip to the moon like “First Man.” Ryan Gosling, working with his “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle, plays Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Gosling is one of the few actors who could bring such humanity to the famously reserved Armstrong. Chazelle wisely spends much of the movie focusing on Gosling’s face, and he conveys infinite courage, integrity, and dedication, and more. Armstrong did not talk about the tragic loss of his toddler daughter to cancer. When he is asked about whether it affected him in his interview for the space program, he answers calmly that it would be impossible not to be affected. But we see so much in the way he touches her hair, and in the way he thinks of her in an important moment near the end of the film.

When we think of space travel, we tend to think of spacious flying machines like the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon, with sleeping chambers and holodecks and chess games. This movie takes us inside the actual space capsule, all built with practical (real-life) effects, not CGI and it’s as though they launched a metal container the size of a car trunk with an atom-bomb-fueled catapult, in a process that shakes it up like a paint can at the hardware store. We can feel the pressure on the screws as they jiggle and threaten to pop. And we hear — wow, the sound design in this film, from Ai-Ling Lee — the hum, the rattle, the breathing. Armstrong is always strong, contained, and capable, but this movie gives us the intimacy and vulnerability around him. One of the film’s most powerful scenes is the fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew. A small puff of smoke through the hatch is more telling than a special effects inferno.

We see the modest simplicity of the Armstrong’s home as well, slightly more comfortable once they are in the space program and living near the other astronauts. Claire Foy is outstanding as Janet Armstrong, a very traditional mid-century suburban wife but in her own way as honest and determined as her husband. She insists that he sit down with their sons before the moon voyage to answer their questions about the dangers he was facing.

There are a number of nice touches that remind us of some of the other work that was going on. The interviews touch on the selection process shown in “The Right Stuff.” Kyle Chandler as astronaut chief Deke Slayton draws an illustration that takes two blackboards, an indicator of the unprecedented calculations shown in “Hidden Figures.” The calm, analytical response to unexpected peril reminds us of “Apollo 13.” It is not so much, as in that film, that failure is not an option. What Armstrong says in this film is, “We fail here so we will not fail there.”

“First Man” puts us inside one of the greatest explorations in human history, respecting the technical achievements and the breathtaking scope of the vision, but always keeping it real and personal. Archival footage of people reminding us that many Americans thought that the money for the space program would be better spent in solving the problems at home remind us that arguments about priorities have been around as long as people have had impossible dreams. And this movie reminds us that sometimes impossible dreams should be a priority, too.

Parents should know that this film includes severe risk and peril with characters injured and killed, a very sad death of a child, disturbing images, some strong language, smoking, and drinking.

Family discussion: What made Neil Armstrong the right man for this mission? What do we learn by the way he responds to danger? Why did he bring something special to leave on the moon?

If you like this, try; “Apollo 13,” “The Dish,” and the excellent series “From the Earth to the Moon”

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