Lady Bird

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2017

Copyright 2017 A24
“Lady Bird? Is that your given name?” the patient priest who is directing the high school play asks at an audition. “Yes.” “Why is it in quotes?” The sign-up sheet reads: Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). “I gave it to myself,” she says. “It’s given to me by me.” Perhaps she selected the name because she is getting ready to fly away and the thought thrills and terrifies her.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is a senior in high school, on the brink of that moment when we are heady at the notion of inventing ourselves. We meet her coming home from a trip with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) to visit colleges near their home in Sacramento. They weep silently together at the end of an audiobook and bicker about the things that mothers and teenage daughters bicker about. Lady Bird (as we will call her) wants to go to college in the East, “where writers live in the woods.” Her mother, a nurse, is trying hard to balance the need to be practical about finances — Lady Bird’s father is about to lose his job — with the parental instinct to protect her daughter from the most unpleasant realities of life, including her parents’ inability to make everything work out. Fortunately, if frustratingly, Lady Bird has retained the solipsistic luxury of tuning out most of what her parents tell her.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig captures with breathtaking precision that liminal moment when teenagers manage to mash-up grandiosity that stretches to infinity and soul-crushing insecurity. “Math isn’t something you’re terribly strong in,” a nun (Lois Smith) tells her diplomatically. “That we know of. Yet,” Lady Bird replies. “I just want you to be the best version of yourself,” her mother tells her. “What if this is the best version of myself?” she asks. Metcalf’s expression on hearing this question contains multitudes of sympathy and maybe a touch of envy at the endless possibilities spreading out in front of her daughter.

This is one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Metcalf and Tracy Letts, as Lady Bird’s parents, Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson as her teachers, “Manchester by the Sea” Lucas Hedges and “Call Me By Your Name” Timothée Chalamet as boys she likes, and Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush as her friends are all superb. Gerwig never lets even the smallest roles be anything but specific and complex. The episodic storyline brims with telling, meticulously observed moments. Lady Bird and her mother stop bickering for a moment in the thrift store when they suddenly unite in the ecstasy of finding the perfect prom dress (inspired, Gerwig told me, by “Pretty in Pink”). Her father finds himself competing for a job with his own son, pride and support edging just slightly ahead of desperation. Lady Bird makes some bad mistakes in judgment but there are no bad guys here, just people trying to figure out who they are and connect without hurting or being hurt, still young enough to assume that it’s only a matter of time.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, sexual references and situations, teen drinking, and mild peril.

Family discussion: What name would you pick for yourself? Is Lady Bird more like her mother or father?

If you like this, try: “Frances Ha” and “Edge of Seventeen”

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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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Two New Movies About the Triumph of High School Underdogs — The Outcasts and Speech and Debate

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Two very entertaining new movies available in some theaters and on demand both tell stories of kids who are considered dorky outsiders in high school but find a way to triumph, learning some lessons and making some friends along the way. The great thing about being a smart dork in high school is that if you work hard and have a bit of luck, it will give you great material to tell the story some day. No one wants to see a movie from the perspective of the kids who are happy and popular in high school, at least not unless they started out as miserable loners.

“Speech & Debate” is a heartfelt love letter from theater kids to theater kids. Three outcasts, a would-be actress, a would-be investigative journalist, and a new kid who is gay band together when the school board caves in to a local man who objects to the school play, “Once Upon a Mattress,” because there is a mention of an unwed pregnancy in it. The popular play makes an uneasy transition to the screen, but the performances by Liam James (“The Way Way Back”), Sarah Steele (“The Good Wife”), and Austin P. MacKenzie (“When We Rise”) have a believable rapport and it is a treat to see Broadway luminaries like Roger Bart, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Skylar Astin in supporting roles.

“The Outcasts” stars “The Middle’s” Eden Sher as Mindy, a nerdy girl whose best friend Jodi (Victoria Justice) is the victim of a mean prank orchestrated by mean girl Whitney (Claudia Lee). Jodi and Whitney unite all of the school’s various factions, even getting the sci/fi and fantasy groups to stop arguing with each other and join forces. But the girls learn that once you have power it is very tempting to abuse it. Performed with a lot of brio and filmed with humor and sensitivity to all involved, it is fun to watch and worth discussing afterward.

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School Stories about Teens

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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