Ben is Back

Posted on December 6, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie, drug dealing, drug use, overdoses
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 7, 2018

Copyright Lionsgate 2018
Movies about families struggling with substance abuse, like real life struggles, generally follow the same pattern. A family member gets involved with drugs (or alcohol or some other addiction) and then there is the horrified realization of how serious the problem is, hope, betrayal, hope, back-sliding, incalculable damage to other family members, anger, recriminations, tears, hope, more back-sliding, maybe some more hope. We saw that most recently in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the joint memoirs of a father and son. But writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,””What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) wisely takes a different approach in “Ben is Back,” starring his son, Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By the Sea,” “Boy Erased”).

As he explained to me in an interview, Hedges has always been fascinated by the story of Orpheus, who followed the woman he loved into Hades to try to save her. As the title tells us, this movie begins when Ben (Hedges) unexpectedly shows up at home just before Christmas. We learn everything that the typical substance abuse movie takes two hours to cover in the first few minutes, from the very different reactions of his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), who is overjoyed to see him and his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), who is furious and horrified. (Nice Christmas-y names, there, Holly and Ivy). And then we see that Holly may be happy to have Ben home, but she has not forgotten who he is — she immediately empties out the medicine cabinet and hides her jewelry.

He says he got permission from the residential rehab program. It is probably not true, but what can a mother do? She wants it to be true so badly. She wants him to be home and to want to be home. And it is Christmas. Holly’s husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the father of her two younger children, does not want Ben to be there. Holly persuades him to give Ben (another) chance.

And then, she must follow him into Hades. An incursion from Ben’s old life in the underworld of drug abuse means that Ben must visit many of his former contacts, and Holly insists on going with him. She may have thought she knew and had experienced the worst, that she knows how far she can go, how far she is willing to go, but she will learn that none of that is true.

Hedges, as always, approaches his characters with a deep, tenderhearted humanity. He is clear-eyed about the genuine villains in this story, including those who make and sell legal opiates, and he recognizes the mistakes even well-meaning, attentive, caring people make. He also understands how family dynamics curb and enable abuse, and how abuse distorts and damages everyone in the substance abuser’s orbit. But he has sympathy for addicts and their families, acknowledging their mistakes and their struggles but always wanting the best for them.

We go backwards through Ben’s life (and Holly’s), meeting people who used with him and people who used him. We see how he first got hooked, one of the movie’s most powerful moments as Holly confronts the now-pathetic culprit in a shopping mall food court. We see the collateral damage, the grieving mother, the near-destroyed friend. And, paraphrasing the words of the old public service ad, we know what it did to Ben, but does Holly know what it is doing to her?

Roberts, who has always been one of the most expressive of actors, gives one of her all-time best performances here. From the film’s very first moment, as she persuades her younger children to do something with a small, seemingly harmless bribe, we see how much of her energy and focus is on managing the world for the people she loves. As she and Ben are driving through their own version of Hades, she keeps assuring her family that everything is fine and that she and Ben will be home soon. It is as though she thinks that if she can only persuade everyone, she can will it into being. The skill of this movie is that while it is clear she cannot, we wish she could.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of drug abuse, overdoses, rehab, drug dealing, sexual references, sad offscreen death, and very strong language.

Family discussion: How is this different from other stories of substance abuse? What do we learn from the scene in the food court? Why can’t Holly tell her family the truth?

If you like this, try: “Beautiful Boy” and “Flight”

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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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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Posted on October 31, 2018 at 8:04 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild peril
Profanity: Some mild languages
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, swords, falls, no one hurt, characters grieving sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2018
Copyright 2018 Disney

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is a beautiful empty mess of a movie. The production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas and costumes by Jenny Beavan are genuinely enchanting. Disney is a modern-day Medici, giving work to the world’s top artisans and the look of the film is gorgeously imagined. But boy, it’s like a fabulously wrapped gift that once you remove the ribbons and paper turns out to be nothing but an empty box. Ultimately, the visuals are so sumptuous and look-at-me that they overwhelm the story.

It is inspired, of course, by the classic ballet, which, let’s all admit, is not much of a story, based on a 200 year old tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann about a young girl named Clara who defeats an evil mouse king with the help of a nutcracker who comes to life. It’s just there to provide an excuse to play the one of the most beloved orchestral pieces of all time, the celestial Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite and to perform the now-classic dances. Half of the Nutcracker is just a performance put on for Clara by dolls and toys of different nationalities.

Almost as well-loved as the ballet, a perennial holiday favorite, is the sequence in Disney’s “Fantasia” (which premiered in 1940, four years before the first US performance of the Nutcracker ballet). Fish swim sinuously to the Arabian Dance music, and fairies bring winter to the forest to Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. But what everyone remembers best is the mushrooms dancing to the Chinese section, one tiny mushroom racing to keep up.

In this version, Clara (Mackenzie Foy, struggling with her English accent and struggling even more with a story that veers from dull to wha??) is the middle child in family in mourning following the death of the mother. It is their first Christmas without her, and they are all feeling lost. Clara’s father (Matthew Macfadyen) tells the children that their mother left them each a gift to be opened on Christmas Eve, a favorite ball gown for her older sister, toy soldiers for her younger brother, and for Clara an intricate egg-shaped box without the key to unlock it. The note says that everything Clara needs is inside.

Clara, like her mother, is a gifted mechanical engineer (she amuses her brother with a clever Rube Goldbergian contraption that deserves more of a payoff later, but the filmmakers do not appear to be paying much attention or expecting us to be, either). So, at the very fancy Christmas Eve party where her father’s primary concern is that Clara dance with him “because everyone expects it,” Clara does just what he told her not to do — she sneaks off to find the host, her godfather (Morgan Freeman, in an eyepatch), who is ignoring the guests and tinkering in his workroom. She thinks he might have a key. And of course in a way, he does.

The next thing we know, Clara has been led to a mysterious Oz/Narnia-like enchanted land, where a mouse steals the key and she chases after him. With the help of a nutcracker come to life (Jayden Fowora-Knight) she learns some secrets about her mother and has to save the day from the evil character who wants to dominate the four realms. Believe me, you don’t need to understand this part. You probably don’t want to, either.

There are some references to “Fantasia,” including an image of a conductor and orchestra directly taken from the film. But why put the red mushrooms in the forest if they aren’t going to dance? Why bring in James Newton Howard to create a new score when it is definitively impossible to improve on Tchaikovsky? And why why why relegate Misty Copeland (mostly) to a credit sequence after the movie is over? The ballet scenes are frustratingly short, while chase scenes and PG-level action take far too much time.

Director Lasse Hallström, known for warm-hearted, deeply sympathetic films like “My Life as a Dog,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and “Cider House Rules” had to leave the film for another project, and it was finished by Joe Johnston, known for skill with special effects stories like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Rocketeer,” and “Jumanji.” This may explain a disjointed tone, particularly with one character whose transformation is fine as a matter of plot but jarringly wrong in tone that takes us completely out of the movie. It is lovely to have a fantasy film with a girl who has courage and agency, but the way it handles its themes of loss are disjointed as well, with a truly jarring disparity in the treatment of Clara and the rest of her family and slightly creepy suggestions about the way the girls make up to their father for the loss of their mother and about how evil and (mild) sexuality (double entendres) are linked.

This movie would be a lot better if it had fewer realms and better writers.

Parents should know that this is too intense for little ones, with scary soldiers, peril and some violence, swords, falls (no one hurt) and characters mourning a sad death of a parent.

Family discussion: What did the note from Clara’s mother mean? What made Clara different from her brother and sister? What made her change her mind about Mother Ginger? How do Clara and Sugar Plum respond differently to the loss of someone they loved?

If you like this, try: “The Wizard of Oz” and “Labyrinth”

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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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