Supernova

Posted on January 28, 2021 at 5:49 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinkiing
Violence/ Scariness: Illness, dementia, discussion of suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 29, 2021

Copyright Netflix 2021
A lot of thought goes into weddings, but very little of it focuses on one of the promises couples make, the one about “in sickness and in health.” And yet those of us who are lucky enough to share our lives with the ones we love for decades will face a time when one has to care for the other. In “Supernova,” Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play a longtime devoted couple who are facing one of the most painful losses of all. One of them has been diagnosed with dementia.

Firth plays Sam, classical pianist, and Tucci is Tusker, a successful novelist. Asleep, they tenderly embrace. Awake, they amiably bicker and banter as they embark on a road trip in a well-traveled camper.

Sam is clearly the more serious of the two, with Tusker more sardonic and a bit of a tease. Writer/director Harry Macqueen understands the rhythms, stresses, and enduring pleasures of a long-term relationship. And Firth beautifully portrays the way Sam worries, worries about revealing that he is worrying, all the time relishing his time with Tusker all the more because he knows there will be less of Tusker every day.

The trip itself is about memory as they visit places and people that have meant the most to them. And as we understand better the strain they are under, their connections and conversations take on deeper meanings. Looking out at a magnificent view that many couples have found romantic Tusker asks what wish Sam would make. Sam says something many couple have said in that same spot. He wishes this vacation could go on forever. But what he means is that he wants to freeze this moment. Tusker, even impaired, knows Sam well enough to respond to the subtext: “So can you tell that it’s gotten worse?”

The trip takes them backwards and forward. They relive some of their past, through recollection, stops at meaningful locations, and encounters with people who have been important to them for a long time. And then obliquely and then more explicitly they look ahead as they consider their options and priorities. Tusker will become more dependent but, most terrifying for both of them, he will become less himself.

How much deference do you give to someone you love deeply when his judgement may be severely diminished? How much deference do you give to someone you love when he wants to care for you — and you don’t want to be cared for, you want both of you to be spared what will inevitably be (literally) horrible?

Macqueen has a light touch with the bigger picture hinted at in the movie’s title. His palpable sympathy for both men and for the complexity of the decisions they are making and the subtle, sympathetic performances from Firth and Tucci make this film a quiet gem, true to the characters and their love story.

Parents should know that the themes of this movie including memory loss and suicide and characters use very strong language.

Family discussion: Do you agree with Tuskar’s decision? How should Sam respond?

If you like this, try: “Still Mine,” “Away From Her,” “The Leisure Seeker,” “Blackbird,” and “I Remember Better When I Paint”

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Our Friend

Posted on January 21, 2021 at 5:35 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, medication
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and very sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 22, 2021
Date Released to DVD: March 29, 2021

Copyright 2021 Roadside Attractions
“Friend” is a category that is near-endless in scope. We use it to describe a work colleague we have lunch with sometimes, someone we’ve seen at parties whose middle name we don’t know, someone we met playing tennis who never heard the story of how our two-year-old locked herself in the bathroom with the cat. We use that word for the people we deliver casseroles to when things get tough, and those who deliver them to us, never crossing the doorway into the house. And yet we use the same word to encompass a person who gave up his job, his home, and his relationship to help people he cares about through as excruciatingly painful and physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting experience as there is, the terminal illness of a young mother. That is the real-life story of Our Friend.

Dakota Johnson plays Nicole Teague, wife of journalist Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck), devoted and endlessly patient mother to Molly and Evangeline, and best friend of Dane (Jason Segel), a shy and sometimes awkward guy who has struggled with depression and with direction. But when Nicole’s diagnosis is dire, he leaves New Orleans to move in with the family, saying simply, “I just feel like I’m supposed to be here right now.”

He tells his girlfriend it will probably be just for a few weeks. But he stays as his vacation days get used up and he loses his job and as her patience gets used up and he loses her. He just stays, never asking how he can help, just quietly providing a sense of stability in the home.

“Our Friend” is based on Matthew Teague’s award-winning story in Esquire. In an interview, I asked Teague about Dane, who, as characters in the movie point out, is not successful in conventional terms but whose quiet and extraordinarily sensitive support defines the term “no greater love.” He said simply, “He is my hero. And it’s pretty great to have a best friend who is also your hero.”

Teague also spoke candidly about the two kinds of health care professionals families encounter in critical illness. The first are only about doing anything medically possible to prolong life. The second come in for hospice care, and will do anything they can to keep the patient comfortable and support the family.

We see both in this film, the second portrayed by the great Cherry Jones as the well-named Faith. Pointedly, as really happened, Dane arrives just as both Nicole and the family dog are diagnosed with cancer, and it is Dane who has to take the dog to the vet and be there for what we euphemistically call being put to sleep. Matthew exhaustedly says he wants to make sure the girls do not associate the two cancers.

We see the impact of the illness on Nicole. As the doctor warns at the beginning, the family will see her unlike anything in their past understanding of who she is. There will be confusion, anger, lashing out, and not just from Nicole. But the focus of the film, as the title indicates, is on the friend, who just shows up and says, “Would it help if I stayed with you for a while?”

The script by Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back,” “Run All Night”) jumps back and forth in time, as though it is all from Matthew’s memory as he writes the story. It opens with Dane sitting on the porch with the girls as Matthew and Nicole rehearse what they will say to let their daughters know that their mother is dying. Though typed titles tell us where we are in time vis a vis the diagnosis, it is sometimes distracting. But director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who showed great compassion for damaged characters in “Meagan Leavy,” imbues the film with enormous compassion for its characters and the lead actors, especially Segel, bring endless warmth and humanity to their roles, which always feel fully inhabited. We feel their loss. And we feel the sustaining connections that help them through.

Parents should know that this movie is the story of the illness and death of a young mother, and it is very sad. Characters use strong language and there are references to adultery.

Family discussion: What made Dane different from the other friends? Who has been a Dane in your life? Who would you be a Dane for?

If you like this, try: “50/50,” with Seth Rogen playing a character based on himself in the true story of a someone who helps a young friend with cancer, and “My Life” with Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman

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Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Posted on September 22, 2020 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: References and some archival footage of illness and disability
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 23, 2020

Copyright Zeitgeist 2020
I wonder what kind of case study Oliver Sacks could write about himself. The author of many books about neurological issues including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat would make a fascinating subject for clinical assessment himself. It was that book that really transformed my thinking about the highly individualized ways we perceive and process information. While he wrote about extreme cases, from the man with brain damage who lived in an eternal present, with no capacity to create new memories to the post-encephalitic “locked-in” patients portrayed in the movie “Awakenings” and Temple Grandin, who has written so eloquently herself about her autism.

Oliver Sacks has, by any measure, an unusual brain. He has face-blindedness, for example, the inability to recognize even the faces of people he knows very well. And he has an exceptionally unusual combination of the kind of deep humanity that often accompanies empathy that can make it difficult to maintain observational objectivity. But what makes him unusual is that he also has the objectivity to be an exceptional clinician. The post-encephalitic patients had sad for years without any effort to help them before Sacks, who was coming for research, not clinical practice, came up with the idea of treating them with new medication that was being used to help people with Parkinson’s. He has, one commenter tells us, “the moral audacity to think something is alive in there.”

Very significantly, we learn in this film, Sacks revitalized the concept of the medical case study, which was considered outdated in a world driven by data. The case study is like a little novel. It is about the person, not the symptoms. Early in the film, Sacks tells us that he is equally a writer and a doctor, and we can see how each plays a part in his understanding of his patients. He says the primary diagnostic question is, “How are you?” He saw the symptoms as a reflection of cognition and perception, not just a reflection of brain damage or dysfunction. And framing the patient’s experience as a story is in itself therapeutic, making the case for sympathy and imagination. “His attention would release people.” They would be “storied back into the world.”

Sacks, who sees the patients with such wholeness and compassion, is compartmentalized himself. There is not only the writer/doctor split. His middle name is Wolf, and he sees himself as both Oliver and wolf, a yin/yang brain/body divide. He has been criticized for being an observer rather than a theorist, but as Grandin points out, without observation there is nothing to theorize about. Many people had the chance to observe the post-encephalitic patients, but Sacks observed something in them no one else did, and that observation included possibility of change.

In one of his books, Sacks wrote about a patient who could “hear” words spoken but not the inflections that reveal context and emotion, so very concrete and literal, and one who was the opposite, unable to comprehend language but acutely sensitive to tone and expression, who was thus in some ways better at discerning meaning. Sacks’ own superior observational skills were in part made possible by the deficits that eliminated distracting data.

Sacks relies on the support of others in his own life, outsourcing many tasks and even emotions and relationships. He has been in psychoanalysis for half a century. He took a lot of risks and abused drugs in his 20s. He gets help from his editor and close friend on some of life’s mundane details. After a one-night-stand on his 40th birthday, he did not have sex again for 25 years, and it was not until his 60’s that he had a close, intimate romantic relationship. And. we learn, early on in the film, he has been told he has only months left to live. With the same clinical distance he showed toward his own medical issues in A Leg to Stand On, he observes himself as a patient as he creates for us “a master class in how to die.” But it is also a master class in how to live, as he says, how to live with what can’t be changed and frame it as a story to give it meaning.

Parents should know that this movie includes frank discussion of drug abuse and sex as well as depictions including archival footage of people who have serious medical challenges. There is also a reference to Sacks’ own recovery from a serious accident.

Family discussion: How did Sacks’ experience as a child affect his decisions in his career? How did being a writer and a doctor help him be better at both?

If you like this, try: “Awakenings” and Sacks’ books

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The Farewell

Posted on July 18, 2019 at 5:34 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking
Profanity: Brief mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Terminal illness, grief and loss
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 19, 2019
Date Released to DVD: November 11, 2019

Copyright 2019 A24
The Farewell” is based on a true story, as told by Lulu Wang on NPR’s “This American Life.” Wang is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. When her grandmother, still in China, received a terminal diagnosis, the news was delivered to her family but not to the woman herself, as is the practice in China. They have a saying: “It’s not the cancer that kills them, but the fear.” The relatives had to figure out a way to see her without making her suspicious about the reason, so they dragooned a cousin into having a wedding in China to give the family an excuse for getting together and spending time with her.

In the movie, Wang’s character is Billi (Awkwafina, shining in a very impressive lead dramatic debut role), a student in New York. The movie informs us as it opens that it is “based on an actual lie.” Billi is very close to her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), meaning that they talk often by phone and love each other unconditionally. But that does not mean that Billi is honest with her grandmother. She tells the kind of little white lie most of us tell our mothers and grandmothers. Half a world away, Nai Nai solicitously asks her granddaughter whether she is wearing a hat and Billi assures her that she is. Billi understands that it isn’t about a hat; her grandmother is just showing that she cares and in her own way she is doing the same.

Billi does not have the same easy warmth with her parents, and she does not tell them the truth, either. But that is more to protect herself from their disapproval and nagging than to reassure them. And she is enough of an American to be very uncomfortable with the idea of not telling Nai Nai the truth. Her mother explains that while Americans are all about individual autonomy and self-determination, Chinese think of the group first, and that means that the family is most important.

And so, they concoct the lie that Billi’s cousin, who lives in Japan, has decided to marry his girlfriend, and the wedding will be in China. They will all gather for a fake happy occasion because it’s “too painful to say goodbye.” For Billi, though, as I suspect for most of the people who will read this review, it is more painful to feel disconnected from her sorrow and sense of devastating loss.

This film is sharply written and beautifully performed. It is a perfect example of the adage that the more specific a story is, the more universal it is. The Chinese settings and customs will seems strange and in some cases odd or funny to westerners, but everyone will understand the emotions — the way the family members want and expect so much from each other. Cultures may have different ideas about what we tell each other and how we mourn. But we all experience fear and grief, and we all try to find ways to comfort each other. Sometimes we tell stories like this one to help bring us together.

Parents should know that the themes of this film included illness and grief. Characters drink and get tipsy and there is some brief mild language.

Family discussion: Who should decide what medical information to give to Nai Nai? Why is Billi closer to her grandmother than her parents? What elements of this story are most like your family?

If you like this, try: “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” and “The Joy Luck Club”

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Breakthrough

Posted on April 16, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content including peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, serious accident, critical medical condition
Diversity Issues: Theme of trans-racial adoption
Date Released to Theaters: April 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 15, 2019

Copyright 2019 20th Century Fox
Breakthrough,” a Christian faith-based story based on a teenager’s remarkable recovery after falling through the ice into a frozen river. It asks but does not pretend to try to answer the big question: If we believe that divine intervention saved this boy, then where is the divine intervention for so many tragedies? Why him? Why not little children and beloved family members? He was not especially good or devout. What does it mean?

The movie also makes it clear that a very large community contributed to the boy’s recovery. Whether they were divinely inspired or not, they played an essential role. Nevertheless, this movie, the last to be issued from the now-Disney-owned Fox division producing Christian faith-based films, is preaching to the choir. It is likely to deliver what they are looking for, but it is unlikely to reach a broader audience as entertainment or as testimony. Even with a strong cast and a dramatic rescue, this movie is not created for or intended for those who are not already on board with the idea of a very devout family experiencing a miracle. Those who are will find this a touching, inspiring story well told and well performed.

Joyce and Brian Smith (“This is Us” star Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas) live in a comfortable suburban home with their teenage son John (Marcel Ruiz), a student at the local Christian private school and star of the school’s basketball team. He is starting to have some teenage broodiness, beginning to deal with being adopted. He loves his parents but feels the loss of the people he never knew who gave him up. When his teacher assigns an oral report on family history, he does not even try.

And then one day he and two of his friends decide to play tag on a frozen river. The ice cracks, and they fall through. Agonizing minutes tick by as rescue workers try to grab John, who has sunk unto the water. Tommy Shine (Mike Colter of “Girls Trip” and “Luke Cage”) hears someone say, “Go back.” Later, no one who was present will say that he said or even heard those words.

John is trapped for 15 minutes and, once he is at the hospital, has no pulse for nearly half an hour. All the medical indicators are that he is past hope. But his mother insists he will come back, and she prays “boldly” — something she had just recently said she was not sure she understood in a Bible study group.

Joyce has some lessons to learn. She has been prideful and judgmental. She has not been careful about her own health and that makes it harder for her to help her family. But Jason (Topher Grace), the new preacher she dismissed as too secular (he brings in a Christian rock band and wears jeans on the pulpit when he uses “The Bachelor” as a kind of parable) turns out to be a true minister. He tells her he cannot change the outcome, but he can walk there with her.

We may not agree on why John recovers. This cast makes us glad and relieved that he does, even if the story veers into smugness that undermines its message.

Parents should know that the story concerns a very serious accident involving teenagers and critical medical conditions.

Family discussion: Why didn’t John want to do the report about his family? Why was it hard for Joyce to trust Jason, and how did that change?

If you like this, try: “Miracles from Heaven”

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