Catherine Called Birdy

Posted on September 22, 2022 at 5:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence, discussions of forced marriage, references to battles, stillbirth, offscreen death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 30, 2022

Copyright 2022 Amazon
Lena Dunham is a remarkably talented writer and director and this loving, joyous adaptation of YA favorite novel Catherine Called Birdy is a passion project for her, as we can seen from her affectionate portrayal of a rebellious girl in the Middle Ages. Before I get to the details of the story, I want to take a moment to note Dunham’s exceptional talent in casting. One of the palpable pleasures of this film worth noting is the superb selection of performers. Even the smallest role is cast with care and beautifully performed. High marks to Dunham and to her casting directors Catriona Dickie and Nina Gold.

“Games of Thrones” actress Bella Ramsey is ideal as the title character, the 14-year-old daughter of a feckless nobleman (Andrew. Scott as Lord Rollo) and his kind-hearted wife (Billie Piper as Lady Aislinn). We are introduced to the family and household with brief written descriptions, video game style. They include Birdy’s nurse and confidant, Morwenna (Lesley Sharp), her brothers, one a monk she likes and one living in the castle with her she mostly ignores. Her friends are Perkin (Michael Woolfitt), who cares for the pigs, and another noble teenager, the beautiful Alis (Isis Hainsworth), who comes to visit once a month with her parents. She also adores her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), who comes for a visit after fighting in the Crusades.

Birdy (nickname from the pigeons she keeps) is a fierce, independent young woman who describes her “lady lessons” as my two least favorite words in one terrible phrase.” She feels unfairly constricted by the norms of her time, and has a long lost of activities unfairly forbidden to women. She is mostly ignored by her father, until he is informed that (1) he is in need of money and (2) the primary asset he can use to get money is his marriageable daughter. In the calculations of the time. a young woman who carries a title is equivalent to a wealthy man without one. As soon as her father finds out that she has begun to menstruate and is therefore ready to bear children, he sends out word that she is ready to be sold into matrimony. She has a series of amusing encounters as she scares off would-be suitors. Finally, though, after Alis is “married” to a nine-year-old, Birdy is promised to the worst of them all.

Dunham gives us a Middle Ages compound that is suitably grimy, with evocative production design by Kave Quinn and costumes from Julian Day and a score from Carter Burwell. But the modern sensibility is evident through contemporary songs on the soundtrack and Birdy’s commentary. She may be ignorant about some of the basic facts of life, but the more interesting knowledge she gains over the course of the film concerns her increased understanding of people and their motivations.

Dunham, like the book’s author Karen Cushman, effectively uses the Middle Ages setting to raise not just contemporary but eternal issues of conflicts between independence and connections of our friends and family, between challenging traditions and allowing them to provide continuity. The humor and pop songs keep the more dire aspects of the story from distracting us when what she wants us to see is Birdy’s resilience and open-heartedness.

Parents should know that this film is frank about puberty and has sexual references and childbirth scenes, including a sad stillbirth. There is off-screen violence, with references to the Crusades and the death of a child, and a sword fight with one participant wounded.

Family discussion: Why did Birdy and Alis have different ideas about how to behave? Why didn’t she agree to go with Ethelfritha? The screenwriter changed the ending from the book. Which ending do you prefer?

If you like this, try: the book and the book series by Tamora Pierce

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13 the Musical

Posted on August 12, 2022 at 12:01 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 12, 2022

Copyright 2022 Netflix
There’s lyric in a song in the lively and tuneful “13 the Musical” that the main character and his mother sing together that pretty much sums up the most stressful parts of life. And there’s nothing more stressful in life than middle school. The mother and son sing ruefully, “It would be funny if it didn’t suck.”

Evan Goldman (a terrific Eli Golden) is studying for his upcoming bar mitzvah, or, as he says, “the Super Bowl of Judaism.” Like many b’nai mitzvot, he is more focused on the party than the significance of being called to read from the Torah and being recognized as an adult. He believes the party will establish his status, either cool or not.

Evan’s parents have just split up, and he and his mother (Debra Messing) are leaving New York to move in with his grandmother (Rhea Perlman) in a very small town in Indiana. There is no synagogue; his New York rabbi (a warm, wise, and witty Josh Peck) will fly in to conduct the service in a church. Evan faces all the pressure of starting a new school in 8th grade multiplied by the pressure of figuring out who the cool kids are and how to make sure they come to his party. This leads him to make a lot of mistakes, hurting the feelings of the not-cool but loyal friends he abandons for the popular crowd, and then digging himself in deeper when he betrays the new friends, too.

In other words, it’s middle school. Actually, it’s middle school with terrific musical numbers. The 2012 Broadway show was entirely performed by kids, even the musicians. Ariana Grande was in the cast. This version smooths out some of the storyline, making it more family-friendly and a bit sweeter. Messing and Perlman are welcome additions, but the focus is still very much on the 8th graders and their efforts to begin to navigate relationships, friend and romantic. Given the heightened emotion of that age, this film is reassuringly low stakes. A couple wants to have a first kiss. A jealous third party wants to make sure it does not happen. Evan is in the middle because either way he will not be able to have the party he wants. Kids make some poor choices but they learn to do better, starting with an apology.

A lot of the film is the energetic, witty musical numbers from writer/composer Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”), energetically choreographed by Jamal Sims. Every one of the young performers is a triple threat, acting, singing, and dancing, with songs set at cheerleader practice and on the football field bleachers. The storyline lightly but sincerely and authentically addresses the real issues of adolescence but it is seeing real-life kids singing and dancing with such jubilant energy and showing the skill and hard work they have devoted to the performance that are the greatest reassurance that adolescence can be survived and triumphed over.

Parents should know that this movie includes a painful divorce and parent-child estrangement and discussion of kissing.

Family discussion: How does Evan help his friends solve their problems? Why was it hard for Brett to tell Lucy he did not like the way she was treating him? Why did Archie go along with Evan’s plan?

If you like this, try: “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger,” “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” and “Better Nate Than Ever”

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The In Between

Posted on February 11, 2022 at 12:30 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief strong language, and some thematic material
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Reference to a drunk driver and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Fatal car accident, sad death, scenes in hospital
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 11, 2022

Copyright 2021 Paramount
Should a movie have a happy ending? We may guess that the teenage couple who debate this critical question in their very first conversation are destined for each other. We may guess which category this film falls in from the opening scene, a fatal car accident. We will see the story unfold back and forth between that night and 102 days earlier, so we can see how they met and fell in love and the events that led up to and followed the crash.

They meet when Skylar (Kyle Allen of “A Map of Tiny Perfect Things”) and Tessa (Joey King of “The Kissing Booth” movies) are entire audience for a French film called “Betty Blue.” Tessa is about to leave when she realizes that there are no subtitles. But he takes the seat next to her and offers to translate as he has seen it before and he speaks French.

They debate the value of a happy ending. As we will learn, Skylar has two loving parents he admires and is close to. He is an outstanding student and athlete and has been accepted at Brown. He believes in happy endings because the world has treated him kindly. Tessa, who lives with people who are not her parents and would rather interact with the world behind a camera, has experienced loss and she is determined to make sure she never risks feeling pain again. She cannot help falling in love with him, but cannot bring herself to say the words that come more easily to him.

Like “Ghost” and “Truly Madly Deeply,” this is a story of love and loss. Tessa is just fine at a remove from other people, taking photos and not talking to the adults she lives with. But Skylar is irresistible. Impossibly so, like beyond perfect, handsome, humble, funny, smart, and one hundred percent devoted and supportive even when she is challenging. But that’s almost okay because Allen has a lot of charm and carries it lightly and because it is depicting the heightened emotions of teenage first love. We can accept that we are seeing him through Tessa’s eyes.

King is transitioning smoothly into more grown-up roles and she is very appealing here, especially as we see Tessa’s relationship with Skylar evolve. We can see how desperately she wants to find connection and allow herself to be loved, even as it terrifies her. The movie is about 20 minutes too long, but so sweet it is hard to hold that against it.

Parents should know that this movie includes discussion of family loss, abandonment, and dysfunction including a mentally unstable parent, foster care, and divorce, brief strong language, and a teen sexual situation.

Family discussion: How do you decide when to protect yourself and when to make yourself vulnerable? Why was it important for Tessa to hear her own words?

If you like this, try: “Every Day,” “Before I Fell,” and, also starring Kyle Allen, “A Map of Tiny Perfect Things”

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Belle (2022)

Posted on January 13, 2022 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, language, brief suggestive material, violence
Profanity: Rude language, bullies
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of parents, child abuse, peril, scary monster
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 14, 2022

Copyright GKIDS 2021
“Belle” is a spectacularly beautiful animated film from Japan (opening theatrically in both Japanese and English versions) with dazzling images out of a classic fairy tale but a storyline that could not be more contemporary.

The film begins with a commercial for “the ultimate online community” called silly U, with more than five billion participants. It is an online “sandbox”-style game where participants has an avatar based on their own biometric data. They have endless freedom to create the world as they want it to be. It sells itself both as “another reality” where, unlike this reality, you can have a second chance and start a new life and as a place where you can be yourself in a way that the trivialities of real life like the way you look do not allow.

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura in the original Japanese cast, Kylie McNeill in the English language version) is a sad, shy, lonely teenager living in rural Japan. She is still mourning the death of her mother, who lost her life saving a drowning child as then-six-year-old Suzu watched in horror, and she feels abandoned. “Why was a stranger’s life more important than being with me?” she sill asks. Her father is remote and the only person she has to talk to is her tech-savvy friend, Ruka (Tina Tamashiro/Hunter Schafer). In these early scenes, her face is almost always obscured. We see her from the back or she puts her head down so her hair hides her face. When her classmates invite her to sing karaoke at a party she runs out of the room, sick to her stomach.

But the avatar she creates on U is another story. At first, she hesitantly types in her real name, but then erases it and creates a glamorous pop star with flowing pink hair named Bell. (Suzu keys it in with just four letters but the fans add an “e” at the end, inspired by the French word for “beautiful.”) Within days, she has millions of followers. She also has millions of critics. Ruka tries to reassure her: “Stardom is built on a mixed reception.” In real life, we see Suzu smile for the first time. Belle becomes a worldwide sensation, disconcerting the previous U world favorite.

And then, as millions are assembled for a virtual concert, it is disrupted by a dragon monster. The rest of the story is inspired in part by “Beauty and the Beast” as Suzu/Belle tries to find out who the beast really is and what he wants.

The screenplay takes a nuanced approach to the virtual world, wisely recognizing that it is just a projection of the real world, sometimes a distorted one, but one that can serve as training wheels, a Rorschach test, a beta test, or even a place to find answers not available anywhere else. Belle is Suzu, after all, and the more she performs as Belle, the more she discovers her own confidence. Finally, when she understands for the first time how her mother could take a risk to save another life, she learns that helping others is a way to find agency, connection, and purpose.

All of this takes place in a gorgeously imagined world so inviting and full of delight we almost wish for a U app on our phones. “Belle” is a touching story that is both timely and timeless.

Parents should know that there are sad parental deaths, domestic abuse issues, some harsh schoolyard insults, and some mild boy-girl interactions.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: “Ready Player One” and another re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast, “Beastly”

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The Tender Bar

Posted on December 16, 2021 at 3:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of alcohol, scenes in a bar, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, scuffles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021
Copyright Amazon Studios 2021

JR Moehringer’s bittersweet memoir has been turned into a tender movie by director George Clooney. Moehringer wrote about growing up with his single mother in a ramshackle house with a mostly loving but dysfunctional extended family, learning his most important lessons about life and manhood from his bartender uncle Charlie and the regulars at the Long Island bar, improbably named after Charles Dickens.

Ben Affleck reminds us of how good he can be with a subtle, understated performance as Uncle Charlie that conveys a great deal about the character with honestly and understanding. JR (played as a child by Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (a terrific Lily Rabe) drive up to her parents home with a sense of resignation, if not defeat. She and her siblings cannot seem to get away from the house where they grew up. JR’s dad is a radio announcer and disc jockey. He has no contact with his former wife and son and JR thinks of him as just a voice.

JR’s grandfather is grumpy and often harsh. Uncle Charlie has his own issues, but he is there for JR, encouraging in their conversations and giving him an example of a man who can be relied on. His scenes are by far the highlight of the film, which goes astray after JR achieves his mother’s most important goal and is admitted to Yale. The movie spends too much time on his first romance, which like many first heartbreaks, is not as life-defining as JR (both the character and the writer) think it is.

Affleck shines here, perhaps because he does not have to be a leading man who carries the film or his comfort in being directed by his friend George Clooney, perhaps because his best scenes are with a child, and, like his character, we can see how much of what he does is in support of his young scene partner. Clooney skillfully creates JR’s world so that we can see it as adults and also understand how the young JR sees it as well. Like the bar of the title, the film is an oasis of honesty and kindness.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language and some crude sexual references and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: What were the most important lessons JR learned from his uncle? Who are your biggest influences outside your immediate family?

If you like this, try: the book and Mary Carr’s The Liar’s Club and the Diane Keaton-directed “Unstrung Heroes.”

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