IT (2017)

Rated R. Running time:  1 hour 28 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 

For the evil have no future; the lamp of the wicked will go out.

Proverbs 24:20

Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?

And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one.

A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:11-12

The Losers watch some old slides as part of their research into their town’s lurid past.      (c) New Line Cinema

I have not read Steven King’s 1986 novel, nor have I seen the TV miniseries aired in the 90s, so viewing director Andy Muschietti’s film was a fresh experience for me. It was truly a creepy experience, sort of a blending of Stand By Me with a typical shocker, such as an episode from Nightmare on Elm Street. Muschietti does a wonderful job of bringing out the best from his ensemble cast of young actors, who make up the outsider kids who call themselves “The Losers.”

Losers they are, both in the ordinary world of their school in small-town Derry Maine and in the mysterious, scarifying world that is either a product of their deeply disturbed psyches or an impinging supernatural world.

The story begins in the late 80s (the time moved forward from the novel’s 50s) with the adolescent Bill making and giving little brother Georgie a paper sailboat. The boy puts on his yellow rain slicker and runs outside to set it afloat in the rain-filled curb gutter. He chases after it as the vessel drifts swiftly down the stream and disappears into a storm sewer. Upset, Georgie kneels to peer into the darkness in the hope of retrieving his treasure. Suddenly staring back at him is the painted face of a clown, beckoning to him as he smiles malevolently. As the film unreels, we will learn that the sewer dweller is named Pennywise (Peter Skarsgard), and his purpose is not harmless entertainment.

Pennywise is truly a creepy villain! (c) New Line Cinema

Weeks go by as the Denbrough family accepts the assumption that their youngest child is dead—all that is, but guilt-ridden Bill who clings to the hope that his brother is somewhere alive in Derry’s ancient and intricate sewer system. From time to time we see an adult put up another “Child Missing” poster on a telephone pole. A year later, and Bill still hopes to find his brother with the help of his friends.

Along with the stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), the Losers consist of Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), in frail health and thus frequently using his inhaler to breathe; Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), an African American whose parents died in a fire; Richie (Finn Walthard), a foul-mouthed wisecracker; and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), son of the town’s rabbi. Latecomers to the gang are chubby Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid at school, and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis). The latter, the Loser’s only girl is rejected by the other girls at school because of unfair rumors that she is promiscuous.

Beverly’s tomboy qualities make her easily acceptable to the members of the Losers, but it is her unfamiliar sex that makes her an object of fascination for them, especially evident in the delightful swimming hole scene. The boys have shed all their clothes but their briefs, and Beverly has done likewise, her two-piece set of underwear revealing as much of the female body as the curious boys had ever seen. All the boys enjoy their first relationship with a girl, and two of them harbor dreams of an even closer bond. A delightful visual touch shows the friends joined in a circle. On the cast of the boy with a broken arm “Losers” has been printed, but now a V has been printed over the S.

The creepiness of the town is emphasized in the scene in which a gang of high school bullies led by Henry Bowes (Nicholas Hamilton) attack Ben on a bridge. A car driven by an adult couple slowly passes by, but even though it is clear what is going on, the adults simply stare as the car continues on. In Stephen King’s world adult s are not care givers—they are either almost entirely absent in the kids’ world, or they are threats to their well-being.

Ben often finds refuge in the town library, where he learns from the newspaper archives that every 27 years Pennywise shows up to kill and eat children. The Losers obtain maps of the sewers and begin to figure out where they might find the malevolent clown as they enter a pact to find and kill him. In several scenes we see that some of them also are in peril from their own parents, especially Beverly whose father has an unhealthy interest in her body. The adolescents’ bond grows closer when they all can see what outsiders cannot, such as the blood spattered all over the bathroom in Beverly’s house. Pennywise seems to know what each kid fears the most and plays upon that fear to intimidate and lure the kid to himself.

Best part of the film, other than that swim scene at the town quarry, is the depiction of the kids discovering that they must work together as a team if they are to survive. They are weak while alone, but together they are strong, as the author of Ecclesiastes observed many centuries ago.

The action and time in this film are contained in the flashbacks of the novel, so there are more encounters between Pennywise and the Losers to come in a sequel. Later when the group comes together after years of separation, the final showdown will take place.

Take the R rating seriously. This is not a family film, the climax being as brutally violent as any film I have seen in a long time. (Fortunately, the filmmakers leave out the novel’s controversial group sexual orgy!) I can easily see how Pennywise could instill Coulrophobia into the minds of children. If you are into the horror genre, this film is a cut above the usual type in which we watch to see which dumb (and deserving of a bad fate) teenager is dispatched in some gruesome manner. Because the coming of age theme is handled so well, we really do care about these “Losers” who struggle to shed their label.

 This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.

 

Grace Unplugged (2013)

Rated PG.  Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

Our Advisories: Violence 5 ;Language 3 ; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 2.5

 With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

Romans 12:1-2 (J.B. Phillips)

  
Grac&Dad


Grace Trey plays and sings with her father Johnny at their church.
(c) 2013 Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

Writer/ director Brad J. Silverman’s faith-based film, boasting better production values than most such productions, is about love, but it is the love that holds families together even when their deeply held opposing opinions threaten to tear them apart.

18 year-old Grace Trey (A J Michalka) sings with her music minister father Johnny (James Denton) in their Birmingham, Alabama church band, where they clash over the way she sings her lines. She longs to slip from her father’s controlling presence and sing in her own style, which includes secular as well as church music.

When she gets the chance, she goes behind his back, recording a demo of the song that he had written when he had been a one-hit rock singer before his conversion to Christ. When it is well received by her father’s old manager Frank “Mossy” Mostin (Kevin Pollak) at a Los Angeles record company, she runs away from home, placing herself in the hands of the record company’s stylists who cosmetize her appearance. The question, of course, arises: what will they and Frank do to her values and goals?

Johnny comes after her, but can only use persuasion to woo her back because she is of age. How she barely escapes being led astray by the shallow values of those she meets in the City of Angels makes for an uplifting story. The film does share the weakness of most faith-based films in that there is little subtlety to the way in which its evangelical message is proclaimed. Still, the film is entertaining, with the acting, singing, and songs first rate, and one scene between father and daughter especially touching in the way they express their love by strummi   ng back and forth on their guitars a few bars from the hymn “It Is Well.”

Also, to the film’s credit, it does not demonize the record people, but does show that some of them are too bound to the success ethic. The record company’s star Renae Taylor (Kelly Thiebaud), whom Grace had looked up to back in Birmingham, tells her “Your body is the biggest asset you have. It’s your currency. Sometimes you have to spend it.” Renae is probably not astute enough to see that this kind of spending leads to spiritual bankruptcy, but will Grace realize that her father is a better advisor than her idol?

Those who watch this film might well come to a better understanding of any differences between the generations, as well as appreciating both the human and divine love that hold a family together. On the other hand, the ending that suggests you can have your cake and eat it to might be a bit too pat for viewers used to more sophisticated film fare.

 A set of discussion questions come with the review in the March issue of Visual Parables. Go to The Store to see the Contents  Page and how to subscribe.

Labor Day (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity.

Our star rating (1-5): 3

 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

Psalm 25:7

 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant…It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

 AtStore

If you have seen the trailer of director/writer Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel, then you know the basic outline of the film, the trailer giving an honest picture of the story. It is what happens between all the trailer’s snippets that sets this film apart from most other romantic films about “true love.” What could easily have been a syrupy, maudlin story of love and redemption is saved by the restraint of Reitman and the consummate acting of all three principal actors. People of faith will see and appreciate the theme of steadfast love, even when experienced over just a weekend, can make a difference in a person’s life—and from an unlikely source at that!

Tobey Maguire, who plays the adult son at the end of the film, narrates the story, relating that his mother Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and himself (a wonderful Gattlin Griffith as a 13 year-old) are alone, His father’s leaving some years before was not as much of a loss for her as losing love itself. Hands shaking, her sense of self worth destroyed by a series of traumas shown in brief flashbacks, Adele goes through the motions of living, but is too wounded to engage in it. Her house becomes as run down and messy as her psyche. Henry, about to enter 7th grade, has become the caretaker, even helping her to put their car in reverse when they leave the sanctuary of the house, the shopping trip being the only time she goes forth, and then only with his accompaniment. Borderline agoraphobic, she has Henry do their banking and other out of house chores.

Then, in 1987, when escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) forces himself into their lives, the world of both mother and son is changed forever. Although he had given them no choice about taking him home with them from the discount store where they had been shopping, he does ask if he can stay until the night. He ties Adele up, telling her that thus she can tell the police that she had been kidnapped and forced into helping him. He cooks a chili or stew, but instead of digging in himself, he takes a steaming hot bowl over to her and spoon feeds her, making sure that each bite has cooled off so as not to burn her lips. During all of this Henry is watching, making no attempt to escape or use the telephone.

With the police passing by and his face on TV newscasts, Frank stays the night, but puts his time to good use. He washes the dishes, sweeps and mops the floor, and the next morning has breakfast for them. Of course, by now he has untied Adele. Each hour seems to bring on another act of kindness– fixing a step on the basement stairway, oiling a squeaky door hinge, crawling under the family station wagon to fix it and change the oil, and cleaning out a leaf-clogged gutter on the roof.. As the long Labor Day weekend passes, Adel and he are drawn together, as is Henry, discovering a father’s care that he had longed for. Frank talks with him and shows him how to hold and throw a baseball and how to hold the bat to hit it. The two, and then Adele, play ball in the backyard. With Frank’s admiration of her and his tender, never aggressive care, Adele begins to blossom. As the adult Henry observes, “They were two people who could not go out into the world, so they made a world with each other.”

There are some tense moments when neighbors drop by, the man across the street with a large bucket of peaches from his tree, a woman with a severely handicapped son who desperately needs Adele to watch him while she rushes off for a day to tend to an unnamed emergency. The peaches prove to be very important, both to the moment and to a day in the distant future. When Adele observes that there far too many peaches to eat so that some will rot away, Frank sets to work. Under his tutelage all three peel and pit the fruit, chopping them into a large pile. Then he takes out a sack of flour and other ingredients to make the pie dough, explaining as he helps them knead the dough that it is very forgiving, even if they do something wrong. He places the rolled out dough into the bottom of the pie pan and then dumps the peaches atop it, last of all helping them place a second rolled out piece on top of the pie. There is so much fruit that the middle bulges up like a small mountain. The edges are a bit ragged, and he does not worry about evenly spacing the small air holes he forms with a fork. (In the interview with author Joyce Maynard on the movie’s film site she says that she did want this to be a “Martha Stewart pie.”) Perfect it is not, but beautiful it is, not physically, but spiritually—I thought of the glorious meal made by Babette Hersant in Babette’s Feast, a meal made by love for love. And then I thought of my maternal grandmother who always baked for me whenever I visited her (from childhood through adulthood) a black raspberry pie because she knew how much I relished it, which made the pie all the more a gift of love.

Interspersed are harrowing scenes from the past and from the present. We see why Adele has become almost comatose, and thus why husband Gerald (Clark Gregg) felt he had to leave, and why Frank had decided to stay with his mother rather than to go with his father. And we see too in scenes with his father, 2nd wife, and half brother that Gerald is not a villain, but a weak man who still loves Henry but has never known how to relate to him. Also, Henry meets a new girl in town, the precocious Mandy (Maika Monroe), who is his age and thus will be starting school in his class. She thinks she knows more about sex than he does, and during their several conversations plants a doubt in Henry’s mind. Having told her the bare minimum about his mother’s new relationship, she warns him, based on her own experience, that he will soon be displaced from home, shipped off to his father. When the weekend passes and Adel decides to go along with Frank’s desperate plan to emigrate to Canada and start over again with new names, Henry is not aware that he is included. How he learns of their true intentions makes that scene second only to the pie sequence in emotional clout. Thus, this film becomes a coming of age film, as well as one of the power of abiding love.

The maker of Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air demonstrates again his capability of directing such diverse types of films, ranging from satire to comedy to drama.. The three main actors perfectly capture the yearning for a love that seems impossible, given the odds stacked against them. Frank is a great example of restrained love, never pressing Adele more than she can stand. No ripping off of clothes and jumping into bed (or upon a table or the floor) for them. These are adults who truly care more for the welfare of the other than their lusts. And, as is finally revealed, it is a love that can withstand disappointment and the separation of time and physical absence. It is as close as human love can be to what the Scriptures call “abiding love.”

And yet in spite of all of the above, I have to raise the question of the reality of the story, namely could all of this happen over just one weekend? Could a woman so emotionally damaged be drawn out of herself so soon, or a boy transfer his longing for affection so quickly from his birth father to this stranger? And when Henry goes to the library to get some books on Canada for Frank, how come it is open on a Sunday morning? No library in any of the four small towns I have lived in would have been open then, especially on a national holiday weekend. (Nor do we hear any church bells or see anyone church-bound, which would be the case in a real small town.) Come to think of it, the bank was open too when Adele forced herself to go with Henry to withdraw her funds for their planned trip. So, despite my initial embracing of this tale, I have to raise the believability factor.

There is a lot to like in the film, but also plenty to make one draw up short and question the whole enterprise. This seems to be a case in which the excellent performance of the cast—without words at times each of the three main actors are able to express through a facial expression or small gesture a longing for a loving relationship that is just beyond their reach—overcomes flaws in the script, leading viewers to believe in the story. Until we emerge from the theater and think about the film. Despite this, I like the film and want to believe in its premise that steadfast love does indeed change things, for the recipient and for the giver.

This review plus 9 discussion questions is included in the Feb. issue of Visual Parables, which is available to subscribers (go to The Store for subscription information). The journal also includes an extensive (over 10 pages–180+ films) annotated list of films on racism that could prove helpful for those wanting films for Black History Month.

The Patience Stone

Rated R.  Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 6; Language 1; Sex-Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

  Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers;
protect me from those who are violent,
who plan evil things in their minds
and stir up wars continually.
They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s,
and under their lips is the venom of vipers.

          Psalm 140:1-3

But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

  Luke 10:41

la-et-patience-stone

The Woman talks to her comatose husband about their unsatisfactory life together.
(c) 2012 Sony Pictures 

Directed by Atiq Rahimi and based on his own 2008 novel, The Patience Stone is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country wracked by civil war. The filmmaker apparently wants us to see his characters as the Muslim equivalent of Every Man and Every Woman, because none of them are given names. A beautiful woman (played by Golshifteh Farahani) tends to the physical needs of her older comatose husband who was shot in the neck during one of his forays into battle. She must also tend to their two young daughters, rushing with them at intervals to escape to a shelter from bombs and rockets landing close by.

The woman at first asks if her husband can hear her. He is the only one to whom she can turn, her in-laws all having fled with no concern for the welfare of herself and her two children. With great difficulty she manages to drag and push her husband into an alcove where he can be hidden from view by curtains while she is gone. She tries to find her aunt, but she has moved, and the new occupant of her residence refuses to divulge where she has moved. The wife, with no money to pay for medicine for her husband or food for the children is desperate, so she returns to her aunt’s former home and refuses to leave until the woman reveals the new address. Also during this period two soldiers invade their apartment and strip the wedding ring and her watch. They would have raped her but for her claim that she is a prostitute. She knew that such super moralists as they (or at least the older one, the other being a youth impaired by his stuttering) would recoil from such an unclean woman. When she at last finds her aunt (Hassina Burgan), the older woman tells her she did right—otherwise they would have killed her after ravishing her body.

The aunt, who herself is a prostitute, also tells her the Persian folktale of The Patience Stone, a black stone that absorbs all of the troubles and fears that you tell it, until at last it shatters, leaving the confessor free at last. Thus the woman’s monologue before her husband gradually shifts from reports of present hardships and needs to the past ten years of their arranged marriage. She was but 17 and he was much older. Except for fulfilling at frequent intervals his lust for her body, there had been no sharing or rapport between them. Never had he considered her needs or desires, only his own. All the bitterness and frustration pour forth from her into the ear of the unblinking husband. We wonder if he can take any of this in, and if so, what feelings he must be experiencing.

The young stuttering soldier (Massi Mrowat) reappears bringing gifts. The woman has left her children with their aunt, so she gives herself to him, guiding and encouraging his clumsy efforts. This too she tells her husband, perhaps enjoying a sense of control over her life for the first time. Therapists tell us that we need to vent our feelings, articulate our frustrations and our dreams, and this is well illustrated in this tale of oppression and longing for freedom, the husband perhaps being the patience stone. If so, what will happen when he has absorbed everything to the limit of endurance—what form will his explosion take? The startling climax only partially answers this, leaving a great deal for the viewer to decide about her eventual fate.

This is a beautifully photographed film about the ugly, dark side of religious fanaticism. It is not anti-Muslim (though some American conservatives might so conceive it), being made by an Afghan filmmaker. The husband could just as easily be a radical Christian whose literal interpretation of the Old and New Testament (largely Pauline, it being necessary to discard Luke’s view of a feminist Jesus) leads him to believe men are superior to women. Only a Middle Easterner such as Atiq Rahimi could have made this film without being labeled an anti-Muslim propagandist. As it is he has given us a challenging visual parable of a woman much like the Mary who preferred to sit at the feet listening to Christ rather than staying in the kitchen with her more traditional sister cooking dinner.

 

The Spectacular Now

Rated R. Our ratings: V -0; L -4; S -5/N-1. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.

 But when he came to himself

  Luke 15:17

 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:4

The Spectacula Now_ Day ten 80812_20120808.JPG

Popular Sutter Keely starts spending time with Aimee to improve her social connections.
© 2013 A24


 Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, director James Ponsoldt’s delightful coming of age film has been compared to those in which John Hughe’s so skillfully explored teenage angst for an earlier generation. The major difference is that most teenagers won’t be admitted to this film because of the film’s R-rating. The two love scenes depicted definitely earn this rating, but they are not milked for eroticism, there being little actual nudity involved. The title is interesting, at first sight perhaps suggesting teacher John Keating’s “Carpe diem” in Dead Poet’s Society, but as we listen to this film’s high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) talk about his wanting to stay in the now where he is enjoying himself so immensely, we perceive quite a touch of irony in it.

The film begins with Sutter at his computer desk trying to answer on a college entrance exam what hardship he has faced and overcome. This sets off a series of flashbacks in which we see that he is an under achiever who has always been the life of the party. Popular with his fellow students, he is not a jock, nor much of anything else—just a guy who can make friends laugh and enjoy themselves. He does hold down a part-time job at a clothing store, where he has a winning way with customers—though we worry over his frequent sips from the whiskey flask he always carries with him. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) is also popular, though we soon see, a lot more committed than he—I doubt very much that he has thought about their getting married. And he likes to spike his soft drinks with liquor that he finds easy to obtain through charm and guile.  Sutter’s best quality, one that makes us root for him, is that he likes to help people.

It is while helping his overly shy friend hook up with a girl that results in Cassidy dumping him. Sutter is so upset that he drinks himself to oblivion, waking up the early the next morning on a front lawn to find a worried Aimee (Shailene Woodley) standing over him. She is relieved that he is alive, but has no idea as to where his car is. She needs to move on to finish delivering newspapers for her irresponsible mother, who actually is in charge of the route. Sutter talks her into taking him along to help toss out the rolled up papers and to try to find where he left his car.

Aimee attends the same school, but Sutter cannot recall her name because they did not move in the same circles. He is drawn to the shy and thus a bit withdrawn girl not for romantic reasons—he still hopes to patch things up with Cassidy—but in order to help her come out of her shell. As they get to know each other, he admires her choice of science/fantasy literature. Learning of her dream of going to a Philadelphia college, a plan her mother’s opposes, he urges her to stand up to her. We learn that she, as well as Sutter, has grown up without the presence of a father.

Getting Cassidy back proves more than problematic. At the party to which he takes Aimee he discovers that his former girlfriend has moved on, dating now a student who is a football star and a serious student. (I liked the fact that though this student is black, no one indicated that this was unusual or notable. Maybe we, or at least Hollywood, really are making some racial progress.) Sutter becomes more involved with Aimee, inviting her now to the prom, but it is obvious that she takes their relationship more seriously than he does. Again we worry about his drinking when the prom gift he gives her is a small silver flask.

Aimee, encouraged by Sutter stands up to her mom concerning going away to college. She returns the favor by helping Sutter with his concern to contact his absent father (Kyle Chandler). His mom Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a nurse, has always refused to tell him anything about the man, and his married sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has gone along with their mother’s refusal. He finally persuades Holly to give him the information, and Aimee agrees to accompany him on the three-hour drive. There follows the most poignant scene in the film, one which almost ends in disaster—and which leads at last to Sutter’s coming to himself.

Back to the title again: Sutter seems like a modern day Peter Pan in his clutching at “the spectacular now.” His initial total disregard for the future is appropriate for a hedonist, perhaps someone whose motto is “Eat, drink, and be merry”—and note the rest of that famous dictum is left off because his immersion in the Now blinds him to his mortality. On the other hand, Sutter’s Now is anything but spectacular. He is failing geometry, which threatens his graduation; girlfriend Cassidy has broken with him; his longing to connect with his absent father has been thwarted by his mother, whom he does not appreciate; and he is gradually sinking into the downward spiral of alcohol dependency, which in turn has led to his losing the job he enjoys. The film does a spectacular job of bringing us into the life of a teenager whose great potential might be destroyed, with the boy following in the hollow footsteps of a father whose knowledge of his failure is so painful that he must drown it in alcohol. To his credit, Sutter tries to break with Aimee, believing that he can only bring her down into his world. (Maybe he remembers the gift of the flask, something that Aimee also is now using too much.)

The writing (by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Brown) and acting are so good that this would have been an excellent film for church youth leaders to use, but there are those two sex scenes, this film like most Hollywood productions assuming “everybody’s doing it.” (At least we see Aimee supplying Sutter with a condom.) Thus, this is a dubious choice to show at the church when the film becomes available on DVD. Should you believe, as I do, that it is one of the best films to explore the teen experience since John Hughes was at work, be sure to bring in the parents and explain why you want to use it. In the meantime, simply enjoy it—or maybe, after careful explanation, even work up a theater party of parents and teens.

The full review with a set of 8 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the Sep/Oct issue of Visual Parables, which will be available on Sep. 23 when VP’s new site is launched.

The Way Way Back (2013)

Rated PG-13.  Our ratings: V -1; L -3 ; S/N -4 . Running time: 1 hour 43 min.

 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid;
you are of more value than many sparrows.
Matthew 10:30-31
DuncBackSeat

Duncan’s expression says it all about having always been relegated to the back seat of life.
(c) 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures

One of the best comedy-dramas of the year involves poor 14 year-old Duncan (Liam James) and his newly divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette), invited to spend the summer at the seaside cottage of her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). It is very telling that in Trent’s station wagon the shy Duncan sits in the very last seat that faces backward. Trent is one of those cocksure guys who’s convinced he’s a blessing to everyone else, so he asks Trent how he would rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Flustered, the boy answers, “6.” Trent yells back, “3,” leaving the boy humiliated and enraged.

What a way for a potential step dad to start off with his lover’s son! Trent’s disdainful daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) is just as difficult, snubbing the slightly younger boy. Pam is asleep now, but during later putdowns she, obviously not wanting to spoil her first serious relationship since her divorce, keeps silent. At such times she realizes her son has been hurt but she apparently feels powerless to do more than cast him a meaningful glance.

When they arrive their boozy neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) almost overwhelms them with her gushy welcome and gossip about the other summer residents. Her daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), about a year older than Duncan, tries to strike up a conversation with him, but the withdrawn boy barely responds. He would much rather be with his dad, but the latter claims his circumstances do not allow this.

Duncan soon finds escape from the oppressive atmosphere of the cabin via a bicycle (a girl’s bike, a pink one at that!) that he discovers in the cluttered garage. During his rides around the town and its environs he comes upon the Water Wizz Park where the crazy-talking Owen (Sam Rockwell) works as a jack of all trades. His humor at first falls flat on Duncan and at times almost gets him fired by his long-suffering boss. However, as Duncan returns day after day, the boy finds he has found a father figure, and even begins to get his mentor’s humor as his mood lightens up. The boy hires on, finding a supportive group of fellow employees that are in stark contrast to Trent and the others back at the cabin—with Susanna, to whom Duncan slowly opens up, being the exception. He even gains the nickname “Pop ‘n’ Lock” when he awkwardly attempts to break dance.

None of Duncan’s exploits are known to Pam or Trent, this to me being the weak point in the plot—how could a boy stay out all night or get a job without his mother’s knowledge and consent? Pam does ask him where he’s been or what he’s been doing when he returns at the end of the day, but his generalized answers would never satisfy a real mother: all the ones I know would have been all over him or gone out during the day to find him. Despite this, director Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have given us a good coming-of-age film. The campfire scene in which the transformed Duncan blurts out to his mother the truth about Trent’s philandering, is powerful drama, especially when Trent lashes back with the truth about Duncan’s father, that the man is too busy with his new family for Duncan to come and spend time with him.

This is one of those films that stand out when compared to the usual inane summer comedy. It is devoid of  (most of) the juvenile anal and sexual humor of so many Holly wood films about teens. Here there are adults who are jerks, but also some who have the wisdom of experience to impart, and the compassion to pass it on. The ending also resists our desire that Pam link up to Owen so that they can “live happily ever after,” the ending being somewhat ambiguous. Even Trent (and I think Steve Carell deserves great credit for playing this less than likable guy) might have learned something from this vacation, cut short by events of the night on the beach. Maybe he realizes that he will have to work hard to repair is relationship with Pam and Owen—or maybe he has gained some maturity from the results of his many blunders. Certainly Pam will be more discerning in her choice of men, and Duncan? Well maybe this once unassertive boy has moved a little closer to that hero pictured in Bonnie Tyler’s song.

Note that the full review with 6 discussion questions is available in the Sept/Oct. issue of Visual Parables.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 9 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely,

            but whoever follows perverse ways will be found out”

Proverbs 10: 9

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 16:24-25

AttwithJemScout

Atticus and his children share a tense moment in front of a mob.
(c) 1962 Universal Pictures

In screenwriter Horton Foote’s perfect adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel set in the rural South during the Great Depression small town lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) risks his reputation by defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping and beating a white woman. A widower, Atticus is raising his young son Jem (Phillip Alford) and daughter Scout (Mary Badham) aided only by his African American housekeeper.

The chilren’s relationship to their father is close, and a bit unusual in that they address him by his first name, rather than by the title “father” or “dad.”  Up unto one fateful day he has been just “ole’ Atticus,” by no means special since he refused to play on the local baseball team like so many other fathers. Then comes the hot summer day when Atticus undergoes a kind of transfiguration—far from miraculous, though—in the eyes of his children Jem and Scout.  A foaming at the mouth mad dog is spotted in the street near the Finch home. Sheriff Tate arrives with his rifle, but when he sees Atticus, he gives the weapon to him and asks him to shoot. The children are very surprised at this. Atticus calmly takes aim and fires. The dog falls in its tracks. The children are wide-eyed, especially when the sheriff tells him that their father is regarded as the best shot in the county. The children had never dreamt of such a thing of “ole’ Atticus.”

Life becomes harder for the children with Atticus’s decision to defend an African American named Tom Robinson, charged with raping a young white woman. We see that he is trying to nip racism in the bud when he corrects Jem from using the “N” word, and when Scout gets in a fight at school because a boy slandered her father, Atticus forbids her to fight any more.

Atticus is so quiet and unassuming that his children are not aware of what a special man their father is. At the beginning of the film Jem is upset with him because Atticus refuses to join the Methodist baseball team because, his father says, he is too old. Only after Atticus shoots the rabid dog at the request of Sheriff Tate do the two children learn that their father is “the best shot in the county.” Thus he is, in effect, transfigured thereafter in their eyes, no longer just their old dad.

Both children see their father’s courage on display one night in front of the courthouse when a would-be lynch mob arrives to drag Tom Robinson out of jail. The sheriff, needing to go out of town, had asked Atticus to sit in front of the door to the jail in case of such an event, hoping that his friend’s presence would prevent violence. The children had awakened, and not finding their father at home, had gone out seeking him. They rush to his side, and Scout, in a naïve but effective manner, defuses the situation when she spies the father of one of her classmates and addresses him by name. Talking to the man about his son, she slows down and stops, beginning to realize the tenseness of the situation. She apologizes to the man, and he replies that no offense was taken. He says to the other men that they should go home.

This is a glorious scene showing that when members of a mob are led to regain their individual identities, the mob is transfigured back to a group of individual persons. Author Harper Lee refused to treat the lower class whites in her novel as “red necks,” believing that even such prejudiced men maintained a spark of decency within that could be reached, especially when the one reaching out was a young child.

In the courtroom, where Jem and Scout observe most of the proceedings from the vantage point of the “Colored” section—the balcony—they see the lawyerly skill of their father, but despite his shattering the arguments of the prosecution and the testimony of the girl falsely claiming to have been raped, the jury members are swayed by their racism, and not the facts.

The children then witness the tribute that the courtroom balcony observers offer their father. It is a tribute that all might wish for, but which is received only by those who earn it through a life of integrity. The courtroom below has cleared out, leaving Atticus alone, placing his papers back in his brief case. As he walks up the aisle he is so lost in thought that he oblivious to the fact that all of the African Americans are still there in their seats. They and Jem stand up out of respect—all but Scout. Reverend Sykes, looking down on her, commands, “Miss Jean Louise. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”

Atticus Finch epitomizes the man of integrity celebrated in the book of Proverbs. He has little of the world’s riches–at the beginning of the film we see a poor farmer whom he has helped paying him with a sack of nuts–but as this scene proves, he has the “good name” and “favor,” which the author of Proverbs declares are “better than silver or gold.”

Indeed, he s more than just a man of integrity, as the scene with neighbor Maudie Atkinson and Jem shows. It is night, and Atticus has just gone out to the sheriff’s car to learn the sad news that Tom Robinson had been shot. There could be no appeal to the jury’s unjust verdict. At this low point Maudie says to Jem, “Jem.” “Yes, ma’am?” “I don’t know if it will help saying this to you… some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us… your father is one of them.” And so was Jesus Christ.

The film is one of the great films about the South and racism because it was written by a Southerner who understood but did not condemn its people, just their racism. In the mob scene the men are not stereotyped as evil rednecks but misguided folk who still retain a spark of decency to which someone, especially an innocent child, can appeal and divert from committing an act that they probably would be ashamed of later. This is a scene that Gandhi would have been very pleased at!

Both the book and the film deserve all the praise and respect that they have garnered through the years. What a wonderful opportunity the film offers people of faith to explore such topics as racism, courage, nonviolence and most of all, integrity. And I should also add, they present us with one of the most admirable Christ figures of all time.

My book FILMS & FAITH: Forty Discussion Guides contains a guide for this film. It can be obtained for $10 (+$2 postage) from Visual Parables, 63 Boone Lake, Walton, KY 41094.