A Week Away

Posted on March 25, 2021 at 5:39 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to offscreen deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: Christian themes, diverse cast
Date Released to Theaters: March 26, 2021
Copyright Netflix 2021

An unhappy teenager gets into trouble and is given a choice: juvie or a week at a Christian summer camp. He takes the second option, planning to run away. But, and I am pretty sure this is not a spoiler, he finds acceptance and hope there and a bit of romance, too. Plus a ton of music. Some of the people behind “High School Musical” (which I unabashedly love, don’t @ me) are behind this one, too, and the musical numbers are filled with “I could do that” accessibility and enthusiasm that makes them especially inviting.

Will (Kevin Quinn) was devastated when his parents were killed in a car accident that he survived. He has no one in his life looking out for him and no direction. The openheartedness and good spirits at the camp connect to him in a way he did not expect, and he is drawn to Avery (Bailee Madison), the daughter of the camp’s director (David Koechner).

The campers are divided into teams that will be competing throughout the week. And there is a campfire, an eating hall where campers are selected to answer questions about who their heroes and crushes are, and is “The Blob,” a huge inflated raft to jump on. I mean, the kids do about three months worth of activities and interactions in one week, but then people don’t randomly break into Broadway-style music numbers, either, so let’s not get picky.

What we do have here is something there just isn’t enough of: genuine kindness. The faith themes are presented very lightly and the primary messages are universal: acceptance, honesty, and connection. Avery, whose mother died some years earlier, talks to Will about “choosing to believe” and the help she gets from her father, making clear that faith and earthly support go together. Insiders and church camp veterans will recognize some of the songs and rhetoric and the Biblical references of the names of the four teams, but newcomers, those of other faiths, and non-believers will either miss them or ignore them. They will catch some movie references, including “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” And they will enjoy the exuberance and old-fashioned fun of the cast, clearly having as much fun as the teens they are portraying.

Parents should know that the story includes two teens who discuss the loss of their parents.

Family discussion: Why did Will and Avery respond to loss differently? How did each of the characters learn something about acceptance? What advice would you give George?

If you like this, try: “High School Musical,” “Camp Rock,” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”

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Moxie

Posted on March 2, 2021 at 12:42 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, strong language, and some teen drinking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: References to rape, predatory behavior
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 3, 2021

Copyright 2021 Netflix
“It’s so nice not to be on anyone’s radar,” Vivian (Hadley Robinson) says to her BFF Claudia (Lauren Tsai). It’s the first day of school and we might detect just a hint of wistfulness in her voice. Everyone is waiting for The Ranking, an annual list of female students selected based on how attractive they are. Some are selected based on how attractive individual body parts are. So, there are names attached to “Most Bangable,” “Best Rack,” “Best Ass.” And presumably the young women are supposed to feel flattered.

Vivian is shy and unsure of herself. Asked to write an essay on what she is passionate about and what steps she has taken to pursue it, she draws a blank. But we see in a dream she has the night before school starts, she has some strong feelings she does not know how to express. The arrival of a new student named Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) will give her a new perspective and help her find her voice.

The school’s alpha male is Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), arrogant and predatory. But his behavior is dismissed by the school’s principal (Marcia Gay Harden as Ms. Shelley) and the students. When he finds he cannot intimidate Lucy, he becomes even more aggressive. Vivian tells Lucy to ignore him so he will move on to someone else. “Keep your head down,” she advises. Lucy says she will be keeping her head up, and Vivian for the first time considers how pernicious the behavior of Mitchell and his friends is. It is more than teasing.

Vivian is close to her single mom, Lisa, played by director/producer Amy Poehler. When Lisa says that at Vivian’s age she was trying to burn down the patriarchy (crucially, she admits that as engaged as she was, she made a lot of mistakes and was not as inclusive as she should have been). Vivian goes through Lisa’s old files and sees the “zine” she and her friends created. And so Vivian follows in that tradition (and in the tradition of “Bridgerton’s” Lady Whistldown and A in “Pretty Little Liars”), Vivian creates an anonymous zine called Moxie (1930s slang for spirited determination), calling out the behavior of the boys who publish the rankings and insult girls. She leaves copies in the girls’ rooms at school, asking everyone who supports her ideas to draw stars and hearts on their hands. And some of the girls too. So does one boy, Seth (Nico Hiraga of “Booksmart” and “Edge of Seventeen”).

“Moxie” is based on the novel by high school teacher Jennifer Mathieu, and you can see the lived experience of working with teenagers, at the same time righteous and vulnerable, in the film. At times, it becomes didactic, as though it is running through a checklist of abuse, and some of the items on that list (the right to wear a tank top to school) are out of proportion to the others. And the resolution in the end is far tidier than anyone who has seen or read about real-life cases will buy.

What works better is the portrayal of the strain on Vivian’s friendship with Claudia as she becomes closer in both the relationship and the style of Lucy. This is more than the usual teen drama about outgrowing childhood connections. It is about developing a deeper understanding and empathy, and that extends not just to Claudia, but to the other girls in the school as well. The emphasis on finding ways to support each other despite differences is well handled. The film should spark some important conversations, some second thoughts about the line between “boys will be boys” and recognizing and stopping damaging behavior. It even might inspire some stars and hearts, some zines, and other ways for girls to tell their stories.

Parents should know that this film concerns toxic masculinity and abuse ranging from insults and objectification to rape. It includes sexual references and some mild language.

Family discussion: Does this movie make you see some incidents at your school differently?

If you like this, try: “Nine to Five,” “Booksmart,” and the documentary “Roll Red Roll”

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Days of the Bagnold Summer

Posted on February 22, 2021 at 11:37 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Reference to marijuana, teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Family stress and confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 20, 2021
Copyright 2019 Greenwich Entertainment

“I’m afraid you’re stuck with boring old me for six weeks, but we’ll have fun,” Sue Bagnold says with gentle cheeriness. Her 15-year-old son Daniel (do not call him Danny) is as irritated by her cheeriness as he is by his situation. His parents are divorced and he was supposed to visit his father in Florida for summer vacation. But his father’s new wife is expecting a baby and they have canceled the visit. Daniel is stuck in his house in an English suburb, expressing his extreme dissatisfaction with the world by wearing Metallica t-shirts and ignoring, blaming, or insulting his mother. How dare she be cheerful? How dare she expect him to do stuff? How dare she keep offering him food? And how dare she go on a date with his history teacher?

Those of us of a certain age will identify with both characters. Anyone who has survived adolescence has experienced the crushing combination of superiority (these feelings are new to me so no one else has ever felt them, and I am uniquely aware of the hypocrisy and meaninglessness of the world) and constant humiliation (why is it so hard to connect to people?). Daniel (Earl Cave) is at that stage, almost as excruciating for him as for those around him, when expressing disdain for just about everything seems like it will make him feel better, or at least stronger. And Sue (Monica Dolan) is at that stage when she Googles “sad boy parents divorced” and keeps hoping to find a glimpse of the sweet boy she once knew.

All of this is presented with great charm in “Days of the Bagnold Summer,” and I found myself smiling through it all. This is not a movie about confrontations or revelations. It is about small moments, tenderly observed, and it gives full attention and understanding to all of the characters, even the one whose behavior is most inexcusable.

Those moments include Sue’s first date since her divorce. The man who asks Sue out, is played with just the right oily charm by Rob Brydon (“The Trip” movies). And there is a well-intentioned day trip to the seaside, with the kind of activities young Danny would have loved, but Daniel finds boring and pointless.    Daniel has just one friend, Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott), and their falling out is the essence of 15-year-old awkward communication failure. Ky’s mother Astrid (the divine Tamsin Grieg having a very fine time) is something of a flower child, all about energies and auras and Reiki. 

I liked the subtlety of the characters’ growth, and the way that even experiences that seem painful or frustrating at the time bring Sue and Daniel together. Each finds an unexpected way to express feelings too long kept concealed, and find that connections with other help them reconnect in a way that may not be as uncomplicated as before but for that reason is more satisfying and even sweeter. Even when Sue and Daniel do not like spending time with each other, we like spending time with them, and it is satisfying for us to see them find their way forward.

Parents should know that this film includes teen drinking and references to marijuana. Themes include family struggles and divorce.

Family discussion: How should Sue have treated Daniel? What do we learn from her visit to Astrid? Why do Sue and Astrid have different ideas about their sons?

If you like this, try: The graphic novel by Joff Winterhart and “Sing Street”

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The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

Posted on February 11, 2021 at 5:57 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool

Copyright 2021 Amazon
After “Palm Springs,” one of 2020’s best films, you may think that yet another bittersweet romantic comedy set in a temporal anomaly/time loop (think “Groundhog Day”) makes you feel like you’re in an infinitely repeating time loop yourself. But it won’t take long at all for you to realize that on the contrary you are watching an utterly charming, engaging, and yes, original film. It is a delight.

“The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” is about Mark (Kyle Allen) and Margaret (Kathryn Newton of “Freaky”). The similarity of their names is not coincidental. Other than being the only two people stuck repeating the same day over and over, they seem to have little in common. He is aimless and artistic. She is focused and loves math and science.

At first, Mark is caught up in his own concerns, using what he has learned by re-living the same day to amuse himself by making the day as seamless as possible. He knows exactly where he has to be to catch the toast popping out of the toaster or grab the mug knocked off the table before it hits the floor.

And then, one day, or, rather, the millionth repeat of the same day, he sees Margaret. She is not eager to become friends and tells him very little about herself or why she has to leave at the same time every day (the same day, you know what I mean).

They are not sure whether they want to break out of the time loop. They see the advantages of a consequence-less life. A mohawk haircut. A tattoo. A car crash, Breaking a lot of stuff. They see the advantages of a closely observed world, the possibilities. They see the disadvantages of a consequence-less life. They see that even actions that will be erased hours later still make a difference.

I liked the way the movie subtly let us and the characters gradually discover that there are other ways to be stuck, even for characters who are not caught in the time loop. Mark’s best friend Henry (Jermaine Harris) sits on the sofa playing the same video game. Mark’s parents are stuck in their own way. And Margaret, despite her plans for the future is stuck in more than a time loop.

The dialogue is sharp and witty enough you want to lean forward to make sure you don’t miss any of it. Briskly directed and beautifully performed, this is a movie you will want to watch more than once and will never feel like you’re repeating the same experience.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, the sad death of a parent, family stress, and teen drinking.

Family discussion: Why did Mark and Margaret go into a time loop? If you could pick one day to live over and over, would you? Which day? What would you do first?

If you like this, try: “Time Bandits” (it is as great as Mark says it is), and other time-loop classics like “Groundhog Day,” “The Edge of Tomorrow,” and “Palm Springs.” You will also enjoy some other fantasy romances like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Stranger than Fiction”

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Freaky

Posted on November 12, 2020 at 5:51 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, mother abuses alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense and graphic horror violence, many grisly murders, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 13, 2020
Date Released to DVD: February 8, 2021
Copyright Blumhouse 2020

If you read my reviews, you know I usually skip the horror movies. So, forgive me if my thoughts on “Freaky” reflect my ignorance. But I was intrigued by the premise of a large male serial killer switching bodies with a blonde teenage girl. And I like the cast, so I watched it, and it’s pretty fun.

But I don’t know enough about horror films to tell you whether the pedestrian set-up and stock characters are just a shortcut because the filmmakers don’t care — and know the audience doesn’t care — and everyone just wants to get to the good stuff, or because they are making some sort of meta-commentary on the whole idea and genre of teen slasher movies. Maybe both. Probably it does not matter. So, let’s just get to the good stuff.

Certainly, the movie wastes no time in getting there. It begins, as all good self-aware teen slasher movies should, with teens in a luxurious but still somehow creepy setting, outside a mansion, trading stories about a legendary serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher. Some say he’s just a legend. Some say he re-appears every year. We have just enough time to see how arrogant and obnoxious these overprivileged kids are (that’s how we feel better about their horrific murders, right?) before the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) arrives, killing them in various creative but grisly and very bloody ways.

Then we meet Milly (Kathryn Newton of “Big Little Lies”), who lives with her recently widowed and therefore vulnerable and clingy mother and her older sister, a police officer. Milly is in high school. She has two devoted best friends, Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla Celeste O’Connor. But she also has bullies, including tiny but fierce mean girl Ryler (Melissa Collazo), some guys, and her shop class teacher (Alan Ruck, yes, Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”).

After the homecoming football game (which does not get cancelled even though a group of students have all been horribly murdered, but okay), Milly is left alone waiting for her mother to pick her up. The Butcher attacks her with a mysterious knife he stole from the mansion. And it turns out to have magical powers or a curse or whatever. When the Butcher stabs Milly, their bodies switch. And, as they will later find out, if they don’t switch back by midnight the next day, they’ll be stuck that way.

This is where everyone starts to have some fun. Vaughn is a hoot trying to persuade Nyla and Josh that it is really Milly inside that 6’5″ middle-aged male body. And Newton has a blast with her new bad self inside the body of a high school girl. Milly is not able to muster the courage to stand up to her shop class teacher or the bullies or to talk to her crush, Booker (Uriah Shelton), but Milly on the outside, Butcher on the inside usually does. Let’s just say that there’s a reason it’s the SHOP class teacher who has been so mean to her.

And of course it all ends up at a big teen party.

In between all of the murders and mayhem, there is room for some sly humor and some genuine warmth as Milly-in-the-Butcher’s-Body hides out in a discount store dressing room and talks to her mom on the other side of the door, and some romance as she and Booker have a quiet, very sweet conversation in a car. There’s a vicarious thrill at seeing the Butcher-in-Milly’s-body stand up (even if it is in a murderous manner) to the people who treated Milly badly.

I’m still not a horror fan, but I enjoyed this one, and if you are a horror fan I’m pretty sure you will, too.

Parents should know this is a full-on horror movie with many disturbing images and grisly murders. Characters use strong language and there are references to sex (some crude) and to alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: What did Milly learn about her mother in the dressing room? How would you convince someone that you were you if you suddenly looked completely different?

If you like this, try: “Jennifer’s Body” and “Shawn of the Dead”

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