The Shape of Water

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, peril, torture, murder
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 9, 2017
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

There is some reassuring symmetry in the cinematic bookends that gave us “Beauty and the Beast” in January (the highest-grossing film of the year), a “Beauty is the beast” film with the mid-year’s “Colossal,” and now, in December, another variation with Guillermo del Toro’s enthralling R-rated fairy tale, “The Shape of Water.”

Sally Hawkins is luminous as Elisa Esposito, a custodian in a secret government lab during the cold war era. Her closest friends are her chatty, unhappily married colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an anxious, cat-loving, old-movie-watching, out-of-work illustrator. They are the only two people who can communicate with Elisa. She can hear but is mute due to a childhood injury, and uses via American Sign Language.

The film is as gorgeous as any enchanted tale could wish, with a green-blue color palette that evokes the sea and old-school, analog equipment in cavernous rooms and huge, clanking equipment harking back to early horror classics like “Frankenstein” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (the later of which del Toro acknowledges as inspiration), with a nod to princess in the castle stories as well.

Elisa discovers one of the lab’s biggest secrets. Strickland (Michael Shannon) a harsh, brutal, “collector,” has captured and brought back to the lab a creature he discovered in the Amazon, a gilled, scaley human-shaped reptilian (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) who has two separate breathing systems, one for air, one for water. He has some other unusual qualities, which Strickland is not learning much about because he mostly zaps the creature with a cattle prod to “tame” him. Elisa shares her hard-boiled eggs with the creature, and then some music, and then some words, as he begins to learn her language. As we will see, there are parallels between them that make them seem almost like star-crossed lovers kept apart only because they are of different species. Elisa is an orphan who was found not on a doorstep but in the water. The scars on her throat from the abuse that cost her her voice look like gills. Most important, she believes the creature is the only one who sees her as whole, complete, not missing anything.

There is a scientist at the lab named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a secret of his own. There are other people who want to steal the creature and people who just want to kill him because it is more important to keep him away from the enemy than to learn more about who he is and what he can tell us about who we are. Of course, the way we treat him tells us a lot about who we are.

The story capaciously encompases a fairy tale romance with spies, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, a heist, and a musical number without, well, losing a step, thanks to del Toro’s ability to create cinematic magic. Hawkins is, as she was in “Maudie” earlier this year, exquisitely able to create a character of fierce intelligence and the kind of gentleness that is grounded in moral courage. Instead of subtitles in white at the bottom of the screen, her words are depicted in yellow letters floating around her, her face communicating as clearly as her hands. The movie is bracketed with images of Elisa floating. By the end, the audience will feel we are floating as well.

Parents should know that this movie includes some elements of horror with graphic and disturbing images, peril, and violence, including torture, sexual references and situations, strong language, smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: How are Elisa and the creature alike? How are Hoffstetler and Strickland different? Why does Giles change his mind?

If you like this, try: “Colossal” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”

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Wonder

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some bullying and peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Wonder is more than a book — it is a movement. R.J. Palacio’s book, Wonder, and its follow-ups, including Auggie & Me, have become hugely popular with middle schoolers and their teachers. That is because it is not a story about disability, even though its hero is a 10-year-old with craniofacial deformity who is starting school for the first time after 27 surgeries. It is a story about friendship, family, and above all, kindness. As the 5th grade teacher writes on the blackboard, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

Auggie (“Room’s” Jacob Tremblay) lives with his loving parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), his devoted older sister Via (for Olivia) (Izabela Vidovic), and their dog in a comfortable New York brownstone. With medical treatment to help him see and hear, Auggie’s face is misshapen and scarred. School principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) tries to put Auggie at ease by joking about his name (everyone has something people make fun of) and recruiting three students to give him a tour of the building before school starts. Scholarship student and all-around boy next door Jack (Noah Jupe), self-centered but not mean Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), and nice-to-grownups-but-a-bully-to-anyone-who-makes-him-uncomfortable Julian (Bryce Gheisar) show him around, alternating between rude questions and pretending he’s not there.

And then school begins. Palacio has taken the most fraught period of life, when friendships are most vital and the tiniest panic about not fitting in can be devastating and heightens it even more by creating an extreme case. Auggie has already triumphed over his disability, which he barely notices. It is triumphing over middle school that is the near-impossible challenge. Palacio and this film understand that it is this time above all, with so many volcanic physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, it seems so desperately important to fit in, to seem, in the narrowest terms, “normal.” And, unfortunately, because they are still so young, it can seem that the best way to do that is to call attention to the ways that other kids are less normal than they are.

So, anyone who’s ever been in middle school will understand why Auggie comes home after the first day and cuts off his padewan braid, not with a light saber because he’s been made a Jedi knight but with his sister’s scissors because kids made fun of him at school. And that doesn’t even have anything to do with his face.

That comes later. The kids spread a rumor, even though none of them really believe it, that touching Auggie will give you “the plague.” And then Auggie does two things that made Julian lash out even more. He is smart in school. And he becomes friends with Jack and then some of the other kids, too, including Summer, a popular girl who joins Auggie’s table in the cafeteria not because she feels sorry for him but because she correctly senses that he is nicer than the catty girls she had been sitting with.

There are setbacks, as when Auggie’s favorite holiday, Halloween, where he gets to look like everyone else, means that he has a chance to overhear what people say when they think he’s not around.

What elevates this film, though, is its recognition that kindness begins with empathy. By leaving Auggie’s point of view to let us know what is going on with some of the other characters, we understand more about why they behave the way they do. Via tells us what even her parents do not know, that it is difficult to be the sibling of a child with a problem, and that the most difficult part is feeling that there’s no space left for any problems from anyone else. When she is abandoned by her closest friend, we think we understand, until we get to see things from the friend’s perspective as well.

Director Stephen Chbosky (writer/director of another story about young friends, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and screenwriter for another movie about a character feared for his looks, “Beauty and the Beast”) has made a wise, warm-hearted film that is a balm for troubled times. It also just happens to have one of the most beautiful performances of the year by Julia Roberts, who wanted to be in the film after she read the book to her children. Look at her face as she sees that Auggie is bringing a friend home for the first time. It contains so much love, relief, surprise, and effort to contain all of that and more it serves as a one-minute master class in screen acting.

“I’m an ordinary kid,” Auggie tells us. “I just don’t look ordinary.” This is a movie that might look ordinary but is a quiet gem of insight and inspiration.

Translation: Story deals with challenges faced by a boy with craniofacial deformity attending school for the first time, bullying, some scuffles, mild schoolyard language

Family discussion: What can you do to choose kindness? How do you know when it is time to be right and when it is time to be kind? Why did Jack make fun of Auggie? Why did Summer sit with Auggie?

If you like this, try: Auggie & Me, the book by Wonder author R.J. Palacio that expands the story

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Interview: “Baby Driver” Actor CJ Jones

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“Baby Driver” has great action and music, but the heart of the film is in the quieter moments with Ansel Elgort’s character, Baby, and his deaf foster father, played by deaf actor CJ Jones.  I spoke to Edgar Wright about working with Jones, and so I was especially glad to see this interview with Jones by Haben Girma.  Here’s an excerpt:

Haben: Film is very visual. Deaf culture and American Sign Language are very visual, too. Do you think being Deaf gives you an advantage over hearing actors?

CJ: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Well, Haben, it is not about being hearing or Deaf, it is not about being black or white, it is not about labels. It’s about talent, integrity, uniqueness, and passion. I got the role because I demonstrated that I have the talent the director was looking for. I fit his vision. He was very happy that he made the right decision hiring an authentic Deaf actor.

Here’s a clip from Bleeding Cool:

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Trailer: Breathe with Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy

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Andrew Garfield plays pioneering disability rights advocate Robin Cavendish in “Breathe,” directed by actor Andy Serkis, best known for his extraordinary motion capture performances in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Planet of the Apes” series.

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Interview on the New Character with Autism on Sesame Street

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Julia, “Sesame Street’s” first character with autism, helps children and their families understand people on the spectrum. Jennifer Thorn, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the English Department of Saint Anselm College answered my questions about Julia and what she can teach us.

The autism spectrum includes a wide range of behaviors and capabilities. Is there a definition that describes everyone described as autistic?

The 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA-1990) defines autism as a category of developmental disability that significantly affects verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction. IDEA-1990 recognizes that autism typically, but not always, becomes evident in children before the age of 3.

By classifying autism as a developmental disability, IDEA-1900 makes clear that it is not a condition arising from emotional disturbance.

Behaviors associated with autism, but not strictly definitional of it, include
• resistance to environmental change;
• discomfort due to heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli; and
• engagement in repetitive actions.

Copyright Sesame Street 2017
Copyright Sesame Street 2017
Why is it important for children and their families to see an autistic character on television?

Current research indicates that half of American children live in homes where the television is on half of the time that family members are home, whether or not anyone is watching it. Three-fourths of American children now have access to mobile devices; one-fifth of these children use mobile devices daily. Children are awash in media, which carries messages, directly and by implication that children are more likely than adults to absorb, because they lack adults’ cognitive abilities.

TV shows offer visions of normalcy. Sesame Street has long recognized that the absence of certain kinds of people in programming conveys powerful messages about what lives are, and aren’t, valuable. Television models values and behaviors that children absorb. The absence of characters with autism suggests that their lives are less worthwhile than the lives of neurotypical people.

I say “characters with autism” rather than “autistic characters” because no one can be reduced to any one quality he or she might possess.

Why have a puppet with autism rather than bringing on a real child with autism as they do with other disabilities?

Sesame Street is to be commended (as it has frequently been, by numerous awards) for its inclusion of content relating to disabilities both to teach content and to model a “normalcy” in which people with disabilities are included.

For example, the violinist Itzak Perlman, who was born with polio, was featured in a 1981 segment in which a little girl ran up a set of steps that he then climbed with his crutches—teaching children about the obstacles that everyday life poses for so many. That segment offered content. In another segment, “Katie and the Baby,” a soon-to-be-big sister anticipated the arrival of a new sibling; the focus was on this ordinary, everyday experience. She had Down Syndrome, but the point was that she was an excited little girl facing an exciting new experience.

So both approaches are valuable—teaching, and taking for grant the presence of a person with a disability. The fact that Julia is a puppet (and such a very appealing one) also puts children at ease and gives them permission to have fun and laugh as they would watching any other character.

What can children learn from Julia about reaching out to people with autism?

Children can learn—and perhaps the older siblings and adults who might watch with them—that people with autism are people, too. First and foremost, including Julia in the gang, matter-of-factly playing and learning with friends and neighbors, shows that people with autism live lives as rich and individual and valuable as any other person’s.

What does it mean to be “culturally and linguistically diverse?”

This phrase means – being mindful of the complexity of “normal” and the ways that “normal” might be seen or experienced differently by different kinds of people. It involves recognizing that programming that shows children only one kind of person implicitly suggests that that kind of person is more normal, more valuable, than other people.

What are Julia’s special concerns and issues? Can she discuss her autism and guide others on how best to communicate with her?

I can’t speak for the writers (I can only trust and applaud them); my sense is that Sesame Street wants Julia to be “not a big deal”—one child with other children, having good days and bad days, problems one minute and joy the next. That integration is the real, and very powerful, value of the addition of Julia to the cast.

What will children with autism think about Julia?

Here I think of the words of Emily Perl Kingsley, the mother of a child with Down syndrome who began appearing on Sesame Street in 1977. In that era, it was widely assumed that children with Down syndrome could not be taught. She has written, of the power of Jason’s inclusion on the show: “Children with disabilities are pleased and proud to see other children like themselves represented on television as fully participating members of the community.”

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