The Glass Castle

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, alcohol and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, child badly burned in a cooking accident, child neglect and endangerment
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 11, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 6, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
In her 1986 best-seller, Necessary Losses, author/poet Judith Viorst talks about the beliefs each of us has to give up in order to move forward. The first and in some ways the most difficult is the understanding that our parents are not all-powerful and all-knowing, and that they cannot kiss all of our hurts and troubles away forever. Some of those realizations are worse than others. Most of us, I hope, do not have to give up on the idea that our parents at least want to take care of us and that they do their best. But parents who neglect or abuse their children take away something worse than food and safety; they take a child’s senses of trust and pride.

And so “The Glass Castle,” based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, begins with Walls, a sophisticated, elegant, and successful New York journalist (Oscar-winner Brie Larson) on her way home in a cab after dinner in an expensive restaurant with her fiance and his prospective client, seeing her parents dumpster diving. They were homeless.

And so, we go back in time to see her as a very young child, telling her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) she is hungry. “Would you rather me make you some food that will be gone in an hour or finish this painting that will last forever?” It is a rhetorical question. Young Jeannette (Chandler Head) toddles over to the stove to make herself some hot dogs. But her dress catches on fire and she is badly burned.

When her father, Rex (Woody Harrelson) decides to take her out of the hospital, without doctor permission and without paying. At this point, Jeannette is still young enough to believe everything her parents tell her, like “our home goes wherever we go.” Rex, probably self-medicating for undiagnosed bipolar disorder, was immensely brilliant and charismatic. The glass castle of the title was the home he kept promising to build the family, and he spent years drawing plans for it. Rex and Rose Mary were less and less able to maintain any kind of stability at the same time that the children became more and more aware of what they were entitled to expect and unlikely to get. Instead of excitedly making plans for the castle, they began pleading with him to stop drinking. And then, when he could not, they decided to take responsibility for themselves and each other.

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton worked with Larson in the outstanding “Short Term 12,” which also had themes of abuse, damage, and resilience. He is especially good here in dealing with the challenge of three different performers, some quite young, portraying Jeannette and her siblings, maintaining consistency as they grow up, but using the cinematography to help convey the journey from their glowing memories of childhood, believing in their parents’ view of the world as beneath them, to the grittier life of deprivation and uncertainty. The spot where the glass castle was supposed to be built literally becomes a garbage dump.

What’s wisest and most significant is that the film becomes more than the story of survival. It is really only when Jeannette stops being afraid to tell the truth about herself that she is able to accept the best of what Rex and Rose Mary brought to her life. As Walls — and Viorst — might agree, necessary losses are worth the pain when they lead to the freedom that only comes from being true about and to yourself.

Parents should know that this film concerns the neglect and abuse of children, parents with substance abuse and mental illness problems. It includes smoking, drinking and drunkenness, domestic abuse, a child burned in a fire, strong language, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why did Jeanette decide to tell her story? What was she grateful for receiving from her parents? If there was a movie about your family, who would you like to play you?

If you like this, try: “Running with Scissors,” “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” (another real-life story with Woody Harrelson as a father with a drinking problem), and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” and the book by Walls

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some teen language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action/fantasy peril and violence, chases, explosions, guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: October 16, 2017

This latest version of Spider-Man is a homecoming indeed, taking us back to the teenage Peter Parker, a bright kid going to high school in Queens, trying to figure out how to talk to the prettiest girl on the Academic Decathlon as he is also trying to figure out what it means to have the great responsibility that comes with great power. Holland, less soulful and more excitable than his recent predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. In this version (thankfully omitting the radioactive spider bite origin story), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is just 15 years old, a high school sophomore, and that means that everything that is happening to him is equally momentous, whether it’s a school field trip to Washington DC for the Decathlon or another kind of field trip that involves an all-out battle with members of the Avengers fighting each other.

We got a glimpse of Holland as Spider-Man and Marisa Tomei as a very young and appealing Aunt May at the end of the last Avengers movie, “Captain America: Civil War,” when Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) brings him to the big fight. This movie reminds us that is where we left off by letting us revisit that episode through Peter’s eyes. Of course if Tony Stark comes to get you and you end up stealing Captain America’s shield in a huge intramural Avengers battle, and you’re just 15 years old, you’re going to be super-excited and you’re going to record it all on your smartphone.

And once the battle is over, he’s going to be back to his regular life of school during the day and very polite crime-fighting at night, explaining his absences to Aunt May and his friends by saying he has a special internship with Stark Industries. Peter is eager to get back into the big leagues: “I feel like I could be doing more.” But Stark and his aide, Happy (“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) tell him to stay home and work on his skills. “Just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” Stark says, and Happy warns, “I’m responsible for seeing that you’re responsible.” But he does give Peter a very cool Spark-designed super-suit with many upgrades, and seeing Spidey discover and master them is a big part of the fun.

Michael Keaton plays the bad guy, bringing some of his comic-book vibe from “Batman” and “Birdman.” His character is Adrian Toomes, who is initially given the salvage contract to dispose of the mess left after a super-battle. When his group is replaced, putting the survival of his company in peril, he liberates some of the alien weapons left behind and becomes an arms dealer, ruthless in business but devoted to his family.

The film goes back and forth between superhero action and a John Hughes style teen movie, with with affectionate references to “Ferris Bueller,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “The Breakfast Club.” There is a nerdy best friend (Jacob Batalon as Ned), a way-out-of-his-league girl (Laura Harrier as Liz), a girl with some potential (Zendaya, wryly hilarious), a school field trip for the Academic Decathlon (with a rescue at the Washington Monument), a Spanish quiz, and a prom, all interrupted by some wild stunts, including a split-down-the-middle Staten Island ferry and a world-depends-on-it hijacking of some of the Avengers’ most important objects.

It’s funny (keep an eye out for Captain America’s school videos), it is exciting (the action scenes are very well paced), and it is smart, not overlooking the chance to compare Toomes’ weapon sales to unsavory characters to Stark’s. Holland is an immensely appealing Peter, young but already very much a hero. His super-challenges keep interfering with his teenage rites of passage, but my spidey-sense tells me he’s just right for the job.

NOTE: Stay ALL the way to the end for a second and very funny credits scene featuring one of the Avengers.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic-book/fantasy action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, chases, explosions, murder, and some teen language and sexual humor.

Family discussion: How does this differ from other Spider-Man movies? Why does Peter say no to Tony?

If you like this, try: more Marvel movies and some John Hughes movies, too

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The Edge of Seventeen

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, language and some drinking - all involving teens
Profanity: Very strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 18, 2016
Date Released to DVD: February 13, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LTHZRT6

Copyright 2016 STX
Copyright 2016 STX
A psychiatrist once told me that just as an infant can have fevers that would be lethal in an adult, a teenager can have symptoms that would be evidence of psychosis at any other stage of life. Mood swings, the feeling that everyone is looking at you, disordered thinking, bizarre appearance: you might be having some sort of breakdown, or you just might be an adolescent. Stories about that intensely traumatic age connect to those of us who have been through it and those who are in the midst of it with a visceral sense of recognition, and, if we’re lucky, a bittersweet humor.

“Edge of Seventeen,” written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, captures the intensity and chaos and drama drama drama of this age. Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, who, like many 17-year-olds, is certain that she is the only person on earth who truly understands what it is to suffer. She actually has experienced a terrible loss, the death of her father, which has left her remaining family fragile. Her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner of “Everybody Wants Some!!”) compensates by being perfect in every disgusting way possible, from Nadine’s perspective. He is handsome, talented, athletic, and popular. That leaves nothing left for her but to be awkward and miserable.

The only thing good in her life, she thinks, is her endlessly supportive and understanding BFF Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who sympathizes with Nadine about the misery of having no father, a perfect brother, and a crush on an unattainable boy who works at Petland in the mall (Alexander Calvert as Nick). She also has a teacher named Mr. Bruner, played with perfectly dry, understated wit by Woody Harrelson, who knows teenagers well enough to understand that the best way to reassure Nadine is not to try to comfort her. When she trounces into the classroom where he is eating lunch alone to tell him she has to kill herself, he responds by noting mildly that in fact she has just interrupted his own creation of a suicide note. “As some of you know, I have 32 fleeting minutes of happiness per school day during lunch which has been eaten up again and again by the same especially badly dressed student and I finally thought, you know what, I would rather have the dark, empty nothingness.” She thinks she wants everyone to be as fraught as she is. He knows how to strike just the right balance of detachment and sympathy.

So when she tries to cancel a sexually explicit invitation to Nick but accidentally sends it instead, Mr. Bruner is there to take a look and point out that she should be more careful about run-on sentences. The reason she is talking to him about it instead of Krista is that Krista, the single good thing in her life, has committed the ultimate betrayal. She and Darien are in a relationship. Nadine is in such a severe state of collapse that she does not notice that there is a smart, handsome, very nice boy interested in her (Hayden Szeto in a star-making performance as Erwin).

The film itself has that same perceptive sympathy for the agonies of adulthood, allowing us to laugh at Nadine only because we know she’ll be fine — she’s going to grow up and make this movie.

Parents should know that this movie has very explicit and crude language, sexual references, and non-explicit sexual situations, a car accident with a sad (offscreen) death of a parent), and teen drinking.

Family discussion: How did Nadine, Darien, and their mother express their grief differently? Is it easier being the perfect one? What do you do to feel better?

If you like this, try: “Rocket Science,” “Thumbsucker,” and “The Duff”

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Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor throughout, language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking (adult)
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, sad off-screen death of a child, parental abandonment and marital break-up, cartoonishly exaggerated adult villains, some misbehavior including vandalism and mayhem
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 7, 2016
Date Released to DVD: January 2, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LTHWXX4
Copyright Lionsgate 2016
Copyright Lionsgate 2016

This just might be the most accurate movie title of all time. Middle school is pretty much the worst years of everyone’s life. Terrible stress and tragedy happens at all ages, but it is the years from 12 to 14 where the internal turmoil and agonizing uncertainty are so acute that we still wince remembering them decades later. This film, based on the series of books by mega-bestselling author James Patterson (with Chris Tebbetts and illustrations by Laura Park) has some delightfully satisfying moments of fantasy revenge against a tyrannical, rules-obssessed principal and a borderline-abusive potential stepfather. But it sneaks in some quietly touching and surprisingly wise insights about loss and working with a “new normal.” Bright direction and an exceptionally engaging cast of kids make this film a genuine fall family treat.

Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) has been expelled from two schools (we never find out why) and has just one more chance. He would rather stay home all day and draw pictures in his notebook, where he has created a whole world of monsters and aliens, charmingly animated. “There’s a big world out there,” Rafe’s mother (Lauren Graham) tells him. “There’s a big world in there, too,” he says. And it is clear that is the world he prefers.

He does not even make it inside the building, though, when he meets the new school’s Principal Dwight (Andy Daly), who cares about just two things: his rules, and the school’s test score ranking. Dwight’s rules basically outlaw anything that is fun, friendly, expressive of individuality, or likely to keep the school from the #1 test score ranking Dwight cherishes so deeply that he has cultivated a number 1 bush by topiary in front of the school. Dwight’s consigliere/enforcer is Ida Stricker (“Parks and Recreation’s” Retta). So, bright, patterned shirts, talking in the hallways, even drawing in a notebook — all banned. There’s also a school bully who threatens to give Rafe “a wedgie so bad you’ll be able to taste your underwear.”

But there are three bright spots. Rafe’s best friend, Leo (Thomas Barbusca), is always there to make him laugh and spur him on. There’s a friendly girl named Jeannie (Isabela Moner), and a kind, sympathetic teacher (“Happy Endings'” Adam Pally) who uses the Drake and the Wu-Tang Clan to teach the class about macroeconomic trends. Rafe decides to take on Dwight by breaking every rule, with Leo’s help. Meanwhile, Rafe’s mom is getting serious with the boyfriend Rafe and his sister call “Bear” (Rob Riggle in his usual role of a walking Axe body spray).

The revenge fantasy is funny and satisfying, mostly about making the pompous Principal Dwight look silly. And it gives Rafe a way to begin to make new friends, to resolve issues with the school bully, and to think through the other problems in his life.

The film is bright and fun, like its sparkling soundtrack of pop songs. The young actors are refreshingly natural and Barbusca has great comic timing. Rafe’s sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson) and love interest Jeanne (Isabela Moner) are real characters, smart and capable. When the more serious issues arise, it is organic and sensitively handled. The pranks are signed RAFE, which stands for “rules aren’t for everyone.” But this movie is.

Parents should know that this film includes schoolyard epithets, potty humor, references to death of a child, parental abandonment, and marital breakup, comically exaggerated adult villains, cartoon-style peril, and tween misbehavior including driving and mild vandalism.

Family discussion: What is the best way to challenge unfair rules? What school rules would you like to change?

If you like this, try: “Harriet the Spy,” “How to Eat Fried Worms,” and the book series that inspired the film

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Based on a book Comedy Coming of age DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues School Stories About Kids Tweens

Mr. Church

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcohol abuse, smoking, prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and very sad deaths
Diversity Issues: A theme of the film
Date Released to Theaters: September 16, 2016
Date Released to DVD: October 24, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01JTQ3QTC

Copyright 2016 Envision Media Arts
Copyright 2016 Envision Media Arts
Eddie Murphy gives a thoughtful, nuanced, sensitive performance in a film that suffers from a too-predictable script and suffers even more from very bad timing.

Director Bruce Beresford picked the right time for the similarly themed “Driving Miss Daisy,” released in 1989, the story of a friendship between an illiterate black chauffeur and a cranky Jewish widow in the Civil Rights era South. It was a prestige and popular success, with Best Picture and Best Actress Oscars. But 27 years later, audiences are more sophisticated or less tolerant or both, and the idea of a devoted domestic who sacrifices a great deal from a combination of limited options and loyalty is not a reassuring fable of racial harmony but a grating reminder of white privilege and the prevalence of the narrative of the Magical Negro. No matter how based (as “Miss Daisy” was, as well as films like “The Help”) on real-life experiences and no matter how well-intentioned and affectionate the portrait, no matter how hard Beresford and Murphy try, it is hard to see the portrait at anything but condescending.

But I did my best to try, and watched it as writer Susan McMartin wanted it to be watched, as her sincere tribute to what she calls “a real friendship in my life.” With that context, I was able to appreciate the film’s evocative sense of time and place and Murphy’s understated performance.

Marie (Natascha McElhone) is a single mother of 10-year-old Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin). Marie is very ill, much worse than Charlotte knows. One day, Mr. Church (Murphy) shows up to cook for them. His salary is being paid by Marie’s former lover, a married man who still cares for her. Charlotte is resistant, even hostile, perhaps projecting some of her anger at her mother’s illness onto the man who seems like an intruder. She’d rather just have cereal. But she is quickly won over by his endlessly marvelous food, masterfully prepared, always while listening jazz on the radio. The economy and precision of his hands as he prepares the food is his own kind of jazz. Soon, he introduces her to something even more nourishing: his well-worn library of books, which he allows her to borrow only after filling out a check-out card.

Mr. Church’s care and her own fierce determination keep Marie going long past the predictions of her doctor, and she is able to see Charlotte (now Britt Robinson of “Tomorrowland”) go to the senior prom. But then Marie is gone, and Mr. Church saves the day by making it possible for Charlotte to go to college, until she becomes pregnant and has to drop out. With nowhere else to go, she finds herself back with Mr. Church, who takes her in and cares for her as he always has.

Even after all that, he is still “Mr. Church.” His private life is still private. And when Charlotte tries to find out more, he is furious. But they are family, and that means they find a way to go on together, until it is her turn to take care of him. (We’ve segued from “Driving Miss Daisy” to “Arthur”)

We spend too much time with Charlotte and not enough with Mr. Church. He is a far more interesting and significant character.

Parents should know that this film includes illness and very sad deaths, and smoking and alcohol abuse, and references to adultery and out of wedlock pregnancy. Her story is one we’ve seen many times before. His is one we want to know more about, and this film should have understood that he was its focus.

Family discussion: How did Mr. Church win Charlotte’s trust? Why didn’t he want her to know more about his life?

If you like this, try: “Clara’s Heart”

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Coming of age Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Inspired by a true story
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