Dear Evan Hansen

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: The PG-13 rating is for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language

Copyright Universal 2021
Adapting a play for the screen is always a challenge, especially when the play is hugely successful because fans are attached to elements of the play that might not work on screen. It is even more of a challenge when the play is a musical. “Dear Evan Hansen” is a multiple award-winning Broadway musical about a teenager struggling with anxiety and depression who impulsively tells a lie to comfort a grieving family. Its transition to film is uneven, sometimes clumsy, sometimes frustrating. One important change improves the original. One important decision not to change weakens the film. And it is too long.

The title comes from a letter high school senior Evan Hansen writes to himself on the advice of his therapist. Hansen is played by Ben Platt, who won a Tony award for his performance in the Broadway, turns 28 this week, and there has been a lot of commentary about whether he is too old to play a teenager. Probably, but the actors were too old to play teenagers in “Grease,” too. The bigger problem is that his performance does not translate completely to screen. He is far more effective as a singer than an actor here. In part that may be due to excessive deference to the performance that has been lauded for years on stage. In part, though, it is attributable to the inherent weakness of the material. The character is written as not much more than a collection of symptoms, longings, and frustrations, and the cinematic storytelling that literally takes us up close and very personal exposes the superficiality of some of the material.

Evan carries his pep talk of a letter to himself to school, where he is alternately ignored or harassed. There is Zoe, a girl he wishes he could figure out how to talk to (25-year-old Kaitlyn Dever). There is a classmate who has to be a little bit nice to him because they are related (Nik Dodani as Jared). There is the girl who seems to have it all together (the radiant Amandla Stenberg as Alana). And there is Zoe’s brother, a troubled, hostile classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan), who misinterprets Evan’s clumsy efforts to be friendly as insulting, and snatches the letter from him in retaliation.

Connor takes his own life. His shattered parents find the letter and think Connor was sending it to Evan, evidence that he had a close friend. Desperate to hold onto any comfort, they beg Evan to tell them about his relationship with Connor. He simply does not have the communication skills to tell them the truth and so he not only pretends that the letter was written by Connor, he makes up a series of stories about their close friendship and what a comfort Connor was to him. He tells Zoe, who is resentful of the trauma Connor’s mental illness inflicted on the family, that Connor cared deeply about her. His ability to comfort Connor’s family perversely gives him a sense of confidence and connection that does more to reduce his anxiety than medication or therapy. Instead of his overworked single mother (Julianne Moore), he spends time with Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), and Zoe, almost accepted as one of their family.

But this cannot continue. I give director Stephen Chbosky (“Wonder”) and writer Steven Levenson, who adapted his script for the play, credit for correcting one of the play’s biggest weaknesses and allowing Evan to more fully accept the consequences of his lies. And I give them a lot of credit for making it clear that one way for Evan to begin to find healing for his own issues is to recognize the vulnerabilities of others. Alana’s honesty in reaching out to him is one of the film’s most powerful moments, and Stenberg once again shows us that she is past promising and already one of the screen’s most accomplished and appealing performers. Dever, also, continues to be a actor of unusual precision in expressing the most subtle and complex emotions. Ryan makes a strong impression, especially in the imagined scenes as Evan makes up stories about him.

It mitigates but does not eliminate the disconnect between the play’s expectation that we will sympathize with Evan more than we do. And I do not think any movie has ever successfully persuaded audiences that what they portray as viral would in the surreal world of social media, actually go viral. But the movie’s message about recognizing the vulnerability of everyone and the importance on empathy for others as a part of growing our own sense of agency, capability, and worthiness is important enough to make up for the uneven pacing and the way that the performances of the younger actors at time seem to be in different movies.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of mental illness and (offscreen) teen suicide, brief strong language, and some suggestive references.

Family discussion: Reconsider some of the people whose behavior you have thought annoying or difficult to understand in light of this movie. How can you be more supportive of the vulnerable people around you?

If you like this, try: “Wonder” by the same director

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CODA

Posted on August 12, 2021 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for drug use, strong sexual content, and language
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Bar fight, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021

Copyright 2021 AppleTV+
One of the smartest choices a filmmaker can make is to take a challenging universal human experience and heighten with with specific details and characters we care about. That is the case with “CODA,” the first film ever to win both the Audience Award and the Grand Prize at Sundance. It got the Directing Award as well. The challenging universal human experience at its center is leaving home, and all of the terror and identity-searching and family conflict it entails.

The heightening details are in the film’s title. CODA stands for (hearing) Children of Deaf Parents. If Deaf parents have a hearing child, there are immediate difficulties. First is making sure the child is around enough spoken language to learn to communicate in the hearing world. Second, as we see throughout this movie, is that in many ways even young children of Deaf parents have to act in an adult, even a parental role as they interpret for them. In an early amusing scene, Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) has to communicate the symptoms and treatment of her father’s jock itch in a doctor visit. The doctor tells her to explain to her parents that they cannot have sex for two weeks and she cannot resist telling them instead that they can never have sex again — before confessing that it’s just two weeks, which her father insists is impossible.

Ruby is a senior in high school and she also works in the family business, catching fish starting at 3:00 am. By the time she gets to school, she is exhausted.

Ruby wants to sing. She shyly signs up for the school chorus, but runs out when it is her turn to sing “Happy Birthday” so the teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (a terrific Eugenio Derbez) can hear her range. Later, she tries again and he can see she is untrained but gifted. He assigns her a duet (with the boy she likes, “Sing Street’s” Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Miles). And he offers to help prepare her for an audition to see if she can get into the Berklee College of Music. This comes just as the pressure on Ruby increases because her father is told he cannot take his boat out without a hearing person on board for safety reasons.

Writer/director Sian Heder (“Orange is the New Black”) has created a universal story in a very specific world with endearing characters and a vivid, lived-in world. Hearing people usually assume that the world of the Deaf is quiet, but it is the opposite; because they cannot hear, they do not try to muffle or avoid loud noises. This leads to more than one scene of complications, from frustrating to funny to both. The world of the fishing community also adds a lot of depth and color. Deaf actors Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s father, Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as her mother, and Daniel Durant as her brother Leo are all excellent, with the one-on-one scenes with Ruby and her parents two of the film’s highlights. Jones is marvelous in a star-making role, lighting up the screen, making her ASL an integral part of her performance, and with a voice we know Berklee would be lucky to have on campus. The conclusion may not come as a surprise (especially as it is featured in the trailer for some unimaginable reason), but by that point we are rooting for newcomers Heder and Jones as much as we are for the endearing character they created.

Parents should know that this movie has strong and crude language, explicit and crude references to sex and body parts and explicit sexual situations, a bar fight, alcohol with scenes in a bar, and marijuana. There are tense family confrontations.

Family discussion: Did Ruby make the right decision? Why did her parents change their minds?

If you like this, try: “Children of a Lesser God” with Matlin’s Oscar-winning performance and “The Sound of Metal,” about a musician who loses his hearing, as well as “Blinded by the Light,” about a young would-be writer who loves Bruce Springsteen

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First Date

Posted on July 8, 2021 at 10:59 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters are drug dealers
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style violence with many characters injured and killed, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 2, 2021

Copyright Magnolia 2021
“First Date” is an unassuming indie film that seems to have spent most of its tiny budget on squibs, the little exploding doodads that movies use to make it look like people and walls and objects are getting shot. There is a lot of shooting in this movie. But, as the title tells us, at the heart of the film are two teenagers on their first date.

Asking someone out and then actually going on the date can seem like a monumental undertaking when you’re a teen and you really like someone. This movie ups the ante by creating external challenges that are as impossible as the ones Mike, a sweet, shy kid played by Tyson Brown) likes the vastly more confident Kelsey (Shelby Duclos). Seeing her shut down the clumsy come-ons from an arrogant jock just makes him even more at sea about how to approach her, even with the enthusiastic pushes from his best friend. But then, miraculously, somehow a date gets scheduled, and that would be really awesome except for one small hitch. He has promised to come pick her up and he does not have anything to pick her up in and his parents have driven off with the family car.

So, Mike buys a ’65 Chrysler, so happy to have a vehicle that he does not pay attention to some obvious red flags about the skeevy-looking seller. It turns out that the car is filled with some valuable product from some very violent bad guys. Thus, we are in for chases, cops, an elderly couple who want to re-enact an early romantic encounter, drug dealers with some internal issues, and lot of texting as Kelsey wants to know what is keeping Mike from arriving. We’re also in for some references to a book club that is reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which, and they really want to make sure everyone understands this, is not a novel but a novella.

Writer/directors Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp (Crosby also did the cinematography and co-edited) have fashioned a loose, episodic story held together by our hopes for Mike and Kelsey. This works better in the first half than the second, as the adventures get wilder and more lethal and the couple in the center stop being in the center. The camerawork and editing are more assured than the writing and the performances are uneven, but the film has some good moments and the filmmakers show promise.

Parents should know that this film is very violent with many characters injured and killed, shoot-outs, chases, drug dealing, very strong language, and sexual references and situations.

Family discussion: Why does Kelsey like Mike? Which of their encounters surprised you the most? Would you join a book club?

If you like this, try: “Superbad”

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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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