Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 13 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our rating (1-5): 4.5

‘Well done!’ said his master, ‘you’re a sound, reliable servant. You’ve been trustworthy over a few things,

now I’m going to put you in charge of much more. Come in and share your master’s rejoicing.’

Matthew 25:21 (Phillips)

Spider-Man, trying to hold together a ferry boat, is stretched into a cruciform, similar to the Spider-Man 2 film when he stopped a runaway subway train. (c)  20th Century Fox

I loved the 2002 Spider-Man, and thus was skeptical of this third version of the comic book character–until I attended the screening of director Marc Webb’s new version. Wow, the exuberance of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker as a 15-year-old geek thrilled to being given the high-tech suit created at Tony Stark’s lab! It was clever of Jonathan Goldstein and his committee of screenwriters to set up the teenaged crime fighter as an intern made to go through a training period with Tony (Robert Downey Jr) as his mentor before becoming a full-fledged member of the Avengers.

The film’s opening origin story is not about Peter being bitten by an “atomic spider,” but about the origin of the supervillain The Vulture. Following the destruction in Manhattan seen in Captain America: Civil War, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is a New York foreman of a clean-up crew excited by some of the alien high tech gadgets he finds strewn about. Before he can collect all of it for salvage, he is run off by Department of Damage Control agents, who are beholden to Tony Stark. He still manages to pocket some of the alien objects, and through the years as he finds still more, creating some super weapons to sell to the underworld’s highest bidders. He also has developed a winged suit that allows him to soar high above Manhattan.

Meanwhile in Queens, 15-year-old Peter Parker (Holland) is reveling in the benefits that come from being an intern of Stark Enterprise. Apparently discovered by Tony when the boy pulled off some feats rescuing crime victims in his neighborhood, Peter is thrilled by the high-tech Spidey suit that replaces his crudely made uniform. (Aunt May [Marisa Tomei] has not yet discovered the alter-identity of her frequently absent nephew, so he had made his own bedraggled looking outfit.) Because he had performed well with the Avengers, Peter expects to be immediately inducted into their ranks, but Tony tells him he is not quite ready, and that he should be careful using his powers in his neighborhood. That the impulsive boy needs such advice we see in the sequence when his clash with some of The Vulture’s henchmen while they are robbing a bank wreaks havoc, resulting in his favorite deli being burnt up.

Thus, while Peter struggles to become accepted as an Avenger, most of the film is set at his Midtown High School where he and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) are geeky outsiders. He is a member of the Academic Decathlon Team, but proves less than helpful when his duties as Spider-Man lures him away during a tournament in Washington, DC. By this time Ned has discovered his friend’s identity and keeps after his friend to tell and show him more about his secret life. Peter longs not only to become an Avenger, but also to become the boyfriend of the popular Liz (Laura Harrier). He eventually does date her for the Homecoming Prom, but then has his socks almost knocked off when he discovers something about her that he never could have imagined.

We never hear Uncle Ben’s famous dictum “With great power comes great responsibility,” but most of the film is about Peter maturing enough to understand this. That he does in the last scene proves to be both a satisfying moment, and a funny one in that Tony Stark must rearrange his plans for a public presentation of his newest Avenger due to Peter’s unusual answer to his invitation.

I was disappointed that there was no Uncle Ben to keep company with Aunt May. (I loved that one of my favorite actors Cliff Robertson played Uncle Ben in the 2002 version.) Maybe he and his heroic demise will be included in a sequel. The teen-enthusiasm and sense of wonder this film engenders in Peter justifies this reboot, with Tom Holland being a perfect fit for the character and the suit. The special effects are awe-inspiring, especially the sequence in which a NYC ferryboat is split in two by the Vulture and Spidey vainly tries to pull it back together with his web material. (There is a series of shots in which our hero, trying to pull the two halves of the ferryboat together, is stretched out crucifix-like, just like the scene impressive scene in Spider-Man 2 when he stops with his web a subway train from crashing off the tracks.) Good thing the Avengers are close at hand! As long as they keep producing Spider-Man films I will have to qualify my complaints about impossible to believe, over-stuffed super hero movies.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Aug.2017 issue of VP.

Manchester By the Sea (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 17 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,

but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.

Proverbs 15:13

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?

Jeremiah 8:22


Lee & Patrick (rt) are joined by family friends George & his wife at the graveside of Joe, the boy’s father & Lee’s brother. (c) Roadside Attractions

 Lee’s (Casey Affleck) spirit might not be “broken,” but, as we get to know him through flashbacks, he is certainly contending with “sorrow of heart.” That is why he has left the village that gives the film its name and puts up with a thankless (almost) job as a janitor in a Boston apartment complex. He is constantly replacing a light bulb for an elderly tenant or repairing a leaky pipe or toilet. Only occasionally does he receive a thank you (from a woman, we see). During his off-hours, he drinks alone in a bar, where he sometimes gets into a fight because he does not like the way a man is looking at him. For Lee is no “glad heart” or “cheerful countenance.”

At the beginning of the film, some eight years earlier, he is standing on the stern of his brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) fishing trawler coaching his young nephew Patrick in fishing. They were very close then, but now that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a 16-year-old, the old closeness is gone. Lee has returned to the village upon receipt of the news that Joe has suddenly dropped dead from heart failure. Joe has been divorced from his alcoholic wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), so the hospital has called Lee as closest relative. Joe’s death was not unexpected, because in a flashback to a hospital bed scene a doctor has diagnosed him with congestive heart disease, news so hard to take that the distraught Elise stalked out of the room.

When Lee attends the reading of the will, he is shocked to learn that he is named Patrick’s guardian, and so is the lawyer by Joe’s not having talked over the matter with his brother. Lee has a host of reasons as to why he is not the proper guardian for his nephew. However, if he is to be in charge, he tells the boy they will have to live in Boston.

Patrick does not want to leave his school friends, hockey team, or garage band—also, the lecherous boy has been grooming two different girls (unknown to each other) as partners to shed their virginity. Over the course of numerous conversations Lee suggests the possibility of the boy staying with another uncle in Minnesota; of Patrick living with his now sober mother whose married to man in a neighboring village; or of staying with the close family friend George (C.J. Wilson), who has been employing the boy part time on the wharf and partners with him in maintaining Joe’s boat.

The film demands close attention because of its numerous, unannounced flashbacks that slowly add to our understanding of the characters. Just as in real life something will suddenly bring back an incident or person we had not thought of in years, so is Lee, while coping with watching over his rebellious nephew, constantly thrust back into his troubled past. He sees that it is not he who controls memory, but that it controls him. And for Lee, these are memories he would like to put behind him. We learn why villagers cast dark looks or whisper about him on the street and why he cannot find a job in the village. There was a tragedy that led to his divorce from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and what amounted to a flight from the town. Guilt and remorse follow him like a dark cloud hovering over his head, shutting out the sunlight.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s somber, beautifully crafted film is good tonic for those chirpy Hallmark-type films that teach that a new romance or adventure will sweep away grief and guilt. You will find that a word-search for “sorrow” or “grief” turns up so many passages in the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, the hurt being so great for one prophet that he cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The Scriptural answer is always tied to a right relationship with God (or making it right if the connection is broken, as was the case with the prophet’s nation). However, we see little evidence of faith in Lee, or in his nephew. And when Patrick has lunch with his reformed alcoholic mother and her new husband, their “born again” faith holds little attraction.

And yet the film does conclude with as positive note as could be expected, even a tentative note of hope. Lee proves to be a wise and caring guardian for Patrick after all. But just before that, we see how wounded Lee still is when he encounters ex-wife Randi and a friend on the street. Pushing a pram with her new baby in it, she is eager to talk with him, so her friend leaves to go fetch their car. Her voice a bit choked up, Randi apologizes for the way she had treated him during their crisis. He relies haltingly, and when she suggests that they meet for lunch to heal their breach, he turns her down. This is the most poignant scene of the film, the two actors deserving the Oscar nods predicted by critics.

I want to give this film 5 stars, but one aspect of it seems either unrealistic and/or deplorable, namely the parenting of the mothers of the two girls that Patrick is desperately trying to make his first sexual conquests. The parents are so permissive, pretending to believe that their daughters are “doing homework” while alone with Patrick, and behind closed doors, no less. They might just as well have given him an invitation, “Welcome to my daughter.” Granted, the boy is smooth and manipulative, using the grief from his father’s death to his advantage, but these women are supposedly adults. Lee also is implicated in his nephew’s plans, though we can understand he is feeling his way in his unfamiliar role of serving as the boy’s guardian, and so does not want to seem too strict. Parents of teenagers, as well as youth leaders, should be wary—there are no good role models for youthful viewers of this film, with the possible exception of George. Having said this, Manchester By the Sea is still a powerful study of grief and the struggle to find a way out of its morass, well worthy of the praise it has garnered.

 This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.


Dough (2015)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 24 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4

You shall also love the stranger,

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:19

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them…

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11:6, 9.


Nat introduces new apprentice Ayyash to Joanna. (c) Menemsha Films

British-Austrian director John Goldschmidt’s whimsical tale of interfaith friendship could be a tonic for Americans fed up with political rhetoric demonizing Muslims. Stoners also will be drawn by the funny sequence in which cannabis is accidentally mixed in with the dough at a Jewish bakery, leading to the sudden popularity of the kosher bakery among new customers who wouldn’t know a challah from a Twinkie.

The elderly Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce) runs the kosher bakery, the clientele dwindling because the younger Jews are moving from East London to more fashionable districts of the city. He is disappointed that his sons will not take over the business, as he did from his father, but they have become successful lawyers and have no interest in continuing the family tradition. This is partly why the widowed proprietor has insisted on staying on with his establishment, rather than giving in to his sons’ advice to retire.

He is upset when the apprentice he has been training for some time quits, going to work for the large supermarket next door that intends to offer kosher goods. None of the applicants for the job turn out to be suitable, so in desperation he accepts the son of Safa Habimana (Natasha Gordon ), the Muslim woman who cleans his shop—but on a trial basis.

Ayyash (Jerome Holder) and his mother are immigrants from Darfur. The mother is worried about her unemployed son because of his hanging out with some friends with connections to the local drug seller. In fact, it will be this connection that leads to the funny episode, as well as threatening the young man’s future. Ayyash proves to be a reliable, though sometimes clumsy, employee. However, when he spreads his prayer rug in the back of the shop so he can offer a prayer to Allah, the distressed Nat orders him to stop because he is worried what his Jewish customers will think should they see the boy. (Nat has just put on his own prayer accouterments– tallit and tefillin –so we know that both are practicing adherents of their faiths.)

The film’s somewhat unlikely funny sequence begins when some cannabis that Ayyash has been entrusted to sell by the drug dealer accidentally falls into the mixer of the challah dough, and the buyers of the loaves soon return for more. The once almost deserted shop now has almost a block-long line of people waiting to buy the goodies, including the new line of “enhanced” brownies that the boy has persuaded his boss to make. As they work together in the shop, the old man showing Ayyash how to braid challahs, a deep bond begins to form between him and the young Muslim. Also adding interest to the story are Pauline Collins as Nat’s widowed landlady who would like theirs to be more than a business arrangement, and Melanie Freeman as Nat’s adoring granddaughter Olivia, who also befriends Ayyash.

But will their relationship survive the inevitable discovery of the magical ingredient? And what will Ayyash’s drug supplier Victor (Ian Hart) do when he demands either payment or the drugs back? There is even a second villain, Sam Cotton (Philip Davis), owner of the expanding supermarket next door who wants to buy the whole building and force Nat either to sell out to him or go out of business. What would happen were he to learn about the secret ingredient of those baked goods, even though, once Nat has discovered it, it now is no longer added to the dough?

The dramedy might seem ever so slight in a world in which Jews and Muslims murderously assault each other in the Middle East almost every day, and yet it is good to see such a film of hope as this one. It might not display the poetic beauty of Isaiah’s vision of shalom, but it is close enough to it to warm the hearts of those longing for harmony and respect among all peoples.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.

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The Duff (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 41 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 3

 Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould…

Romans 12:2a (J.B. Phillips)


Bianca (on rt) with her two prettier school friends.    (c) 2015 Lionsgate Films

In this Ari Sandel-directed film Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) is a high school senior content on going her own way as an outsider. She dresses in unfashionable flannel shirts and coveralls and wears little makeup compared to the other mini-skirted or tight-jeaned girls who look like candidates for a modeling agency. Her room is decorated with posters that show her love for horror and zombie movies rather than romantic comedies. She has two gorgeous friends Casey and Jess (Bianca A. Santos and Skyler Samuels) with whom she enjoys hanging out. The most likely to be Homecoming Queen Madison (Bella Thorne) scarcely notices while marching down a corridor, expecting every girl to get out of her way, and every boy to cast lustful glances at her.

Then comes the night at a party when Bianca’s next door neighbor, football captain Wesley (Robbie Amell), off-handedly remarks that she is a DUFF. When she is puzzled by the term, he explains it to her–Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Pointing around the room at various groupings, he says that the Duff is not really part of a group but the one who runs errands for the others and who is used by people to gain access to one of her friends—and you do not have to be either fat or ugly to be a Duff. This hits Bianca like the sky had fallen on her head, leading her to change both herself and the social media-based atmosphere at her school. Her first step is to “unfriend” two her pals on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc. They are hurt and puzzled by her new hostility.

Bianca has wanted to date a dreamboat named Toby (Nick Eversman), but finds herself lost for words whenever face to face with him. Wesley, a jock needing good grades to be able to win a football scholarship for college, is failing chemistry, so Bianca agrees to help him pass the subject in return for his coaching her in how to relate to a guy. He has been going with Madison, but she has temporarily cooled their romance. However, when she sees him spending time with Bianca, she, with the help of another glamour girl who secretly tapes Wesley showing Bianca what clothes to buy at the mall in order to be more practical, posts the videos with demeaning comments on all the social media.

This adaptation of Kody Keplinger’s young adult novel is no Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles (actually closer to 2010’s humorously raunchy Easy A, also a film that also shows the power among teens of social media), but it is far above the majority of high school films. The adults (mainly the teachers) are sometimes a bit sappy, but not totally stupid or clueless. Allison Janney’s Dottie, Bianca’s mom, even comes up with some good advice near the climax. And Bianca’s two glamorous friends, clueless as to why she had broken with them, are quick to reconcile with her when they discover the reason she had stopped hanging out with them, thus making a good point about friendship. (Indeed, the script’s failure to show any details of their friendship before the break is a weak point of the film.) The change in her relationships with Toby and Wesley we can see coming, but this is fine. The lessons on cyber bullying and the need to be yourself might be a bit heavy handed for some, but are well taken. All in all, this is a film that even adults can watch with just a little bit of wincing.

This review with some discussion questions will be in the March 2014 issue of Visual Parables.

The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (0-5): 4.5

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:13

 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2


Gus, Isaac, & Hazel meet at their cancer support group. (c) 20th Century Fox

 Usually when we read the 3rd chapter of Ecclesiastes we think of “the time to die” as when our hair is gray, or for males, thinning or gone. Not so for Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). She is just 16, and he is a couple of years older, and both are afflicted with cancer that threatens to end their young lives in the near future.

Hazel has suffered from thyroid cancer since she was 13. She would have died were it not for a miracle drug, but the cancer could reappear at any moment, and now she must wheel along a small oxygen tank wherever she goes. A place that she does not want to go is the cancer support group at St. Paul Episcopal Church. The youth minister there had a brief bout of cancer during which he wove a large rug with the Catholic image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at its center. He ineptly sings a song about Jesus and invites the participants “into the heart of Jesus.” This seems to be of interest to no one, especially Hazel, who has been suffering from depression.

She does notice a newcomer to the group Augustus, a former athlete who jokingly shows off the artificial leg replacing the one lost to cancer. He also fixes his eyes on her, coming up and befriending her after the session. He has come in support of his friend His best friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), whose cancer has cost him his vision on one eye and will soon blind the other one as well.

Gus almost drives her away at their first meeting when he takes out a cigarette and places an unlit one between his teeth. Totally upset at this seeming reckless behavior, Hazel lays into him. He takes the cigarette out of his mouth and explains, “They don’t kill you unless you light them. And I’ve never lit one. It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do it’s killing. A metaphor.”

Part of their getting to know each other is to exchange favorite books, his a fantasy (or sci-fi?), hers a book about a young person dying of cancer, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). Gus is upset that the novel ends in mid sentence. Hazel too has questions as to what happens after the abrupt conclusion, but the author, after writing this one novel has left America to live in Amsterdam. Hazel is thrilled when Gus manages to contact Van Houten via the Internet, and he indicates he would respond to her. She writes him concerning her questions, but he says he will not commit any answer to writing, but if she were ever in Amsterdam, he would welcome a meeting with her.

By now we are so enveloped in the lives of these two appealing young people that we can overlook the novelishness of their means of being able to go to Amsterdam—with Mom along, of course, to help care for Hazel. Checking into a posh hotel, they are told that Mr. Van Houten is paying their bills, including a night out at an expensive restaurant where the wine they are offered probably begins at $100 a bottle. It is a memorable evening that promises an exciting tomorrow. However, when Van Houten’s aide/companion Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek) greets them warmly and ushers them into the great man’s presence, the meeting turns sour. It soon becomes evident that it was she, and not the author, who had sent them the emails and had contacted the hotel and restaurant. Van Houten, obviously a heavy drinker embittered by life, belittles and insults the youth for their questions, so much so that they walk out angrily after Gus tells him off. Lidewij catches up with them outside, explaining that she had set up the meeting in the hope that it would help him. To make amends, she arranges for them to get into the Anne Frank House, now a popular museum dedicate to another teenager who had lived under a death threat.

This was a moving sequence (despite what some unsentimental critics have said!), with Gus wanting to help Hazel with her oxygen tank up the steep stairs of the multi-story house, but she preferring to struggle with it by herself. It is obvious that their world is being enlarged by this exposure to a teenager in the past who also struggled with the unfairness of life. At times we hear excerpts from Anne’s famous diary. On the upper floor in the cramped attic where Anne also discovered love, they embrace and kiss passionately. Maybe it was a bit over the top having the other tourists break out in applause, but then so did my companion and I.

I have yet to find another reviewer pointing out what the relatively minor character of Lidewij is, a conveyor of grace. Would the pair have made the trip unless she had issued the invitation to visit her employer (or lover?)? Even the disastrous meeting was salvaged by the couple coming into close contact with the short but meaningful life of Anne Frank. I wish we could have seen more of Lidewij!

Director Josh Boone’s film, based on John Green’s popular 2012 young adult novel is not one of those stories in which a cure is found after a long search. The couple expects death to take them, and it does one of them. Beforehand, however, they do ponder it and their own short mortality. Hazel does not believe in an afterlife, but Gus clings to at least a remnant of faith, saying at one point, “I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?”

It is sad that the very institution dedicated to the good news that life extends beyond the grave is represented by such an inept leader as the youth minister depicted in the film. Having been deeply involved in youth ministry and in contact with dozens upon dozens of them over the years, I was always impressed by their intelligence and creativity—and thus was disappointed to learn that author John Green himself had been a chaplain, yet gives us such a wimpy spiritual leader. These kids deserved better! (For a depiction of a youth minister with genuine depth of faith who came to the aid of a teenager beset by an enormous loss see Soul Surfer.) The parents, although deeply concerned and supportive, also seem to be lacking in spiritual resources.

Hazel and Gus talk about the little infinities of their lives, so she says at one point, “But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.” That they refuse to wallow in self pity or fall into cynicism is a noble thing. She believes that oblivion will be their fate, but as pointed out earlier, he thinks there is something more. He lives in the hope that there will be some remembrance of them, that even given so few years, they can do something memorable.

MLK, who also was conscious that his life would be cut short, famously said that it was not the length of a person’s life that counted, but his character and what he did with this life that mattered. Gus and Hazel, young as they were, experienced love, not just for each other, but for friends as well. We see this in Isaac’s statement that if he could regain his sight, he would not do it, that he did not want to see a world without his friend Isaac. Quite a testimony to the love of a friend who had supported him so well! I am not sure who said the following—I think it was Gus—but it bears attention, ““The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn’t actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn’t get smallpox.” If this is so, then Hazel, Gus, and possibly Isaac are indeed heroes. Certainly Lidewij is.

There is the possibility of reconciliation between the arrogant author and the survivor of the pair, right after the graveside service. This is rejected because the survivor is suffering so much and not able to rise above present grief and still smoldering anger at the heartless way the alcoholic Van Houten had treated them in Amsterdam. The force that had impelled the author to come to America and seek out the survivor was not just the letter entrusted to him by the deceased, but I suspect also it was that wonderful agent of grace Lidewij. I like to think that despite his proffered apology being rejected, Van Houten will return to Amsterdam a better man with a healthier relationship with Lidewij. Perhaps a full reconciliation at the graveyard would have made this excellent movie too warm and fuzzy, detracting from its edginess. (Which I believe is what the over the top ending did to the otherwise wonderful teacher movie Mr. Holland’s Opus.)

This is a powerful film that I would love to see discussed by groups made up of people of faith—“non-believers” because they would stop believers from regurgitating all the shallow “explanations” (“God wanted another angel,” etc. as per such films as Contact) for untimely deaths; and believers because they could offer hope.

Short Term 12

Rated R. Our ratings: V -2; L -4; S/N -6. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

New patient Jayden is comforted by Grace, played by Brie Larson in Short Term 12. (Photo used by permission Demarest Films.)

New patient Jayden is comforted by Grace, played by Brie Larson in Short Term 12. (Photo used by permission of Demarest Films.)

He heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds.

            Psalm 147.3

 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his woundsyou have been healed.

            1 Peter 2.24

Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton has taken his  22-minute short, shown at Sundance in 2008, and expanded it into one of the best feature films of the year. He reportedly spent two years after college working in a mental treatment facility, and the many details of the movie show this. This film, centered on disturbed teenagers and their young caregivers, is light years away from the caricatures that populate One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. Its small production budget is probably less than the advertising budget for the average summer blockbuster, so you might not have heard of this film: before going into details, I want to urge you right away to seek it out. It is certain to be on Visual Parables’ Top Ten list for the year.

The title comes from the name of the mental facility where the disturbed teenagers are expected to stay for just 12 months, the hope being that most will be taken in by foster parents or returned to their own families. It begins with line staff supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) and fellow staffer Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) talking with new volunteer Nate (Rami Malek) about what to expect. Mason is in the midst of telling a funny self-deprecating story when Sammy (Alex Calloway), a skinny kid always dressed in pajama bottoms and playing with dolls, runs out of the building. All three set out in chase, knowing that if Sammy reaches the street, they cannot restrain him. They succeed in catching up with him, and when the would-be runaway is returned to his room, Mason finishes his story. That he is able to share a tale that puts himself in a very unflattering light tells us a lot about this compassionate caregiver.

Grace is well named, she, as well as Mason, seeing her job as a calling—people of faith would call it a “ministry.” She is in her mid to late twenties with no degree in counseling, but her natural gifts, coupled with her own history of abuse, make her a far better counselor than her boss Jack (Frantz Turner), as we see in a later sequence.  She and Mason work well together, and they also live together in an apartment they keep secret—though later they learn that the patients all are aware of their relationship.

When 15 year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, she resists the staff and residents’ attempts to be friendly, telling them that she doesn’t want to talk with anyone because her father will soon have her out, and so she does not want to waste her time on short relationships. Grace sees much of herself in the new arrival, including her compulsive cutting of herself. Grace herself is an example of what writer Henri Nouwen called a “wounded healer.” She is pregnant with an unwanted child, and she receives a phone call informing her that the father who was sent to prison on the basis of her testimony about his abusing her will soon be out on parole. When she informs Mason of her condition, he wants her to open up and talk, but she says she cannot. This becomes a growing issue that threatens their relationship.

When Jayden manages to get away from the residence, Grace cannot restrain her to bring her back, so she insists on following her. Despite Jayden’s protests, Grace continues to stay with her. Through this act and a shared interest in drawing, the two grow closer together. Especially telling is the scene in which the girl shows Grace her story of the octopus and the shark, an indirect way of revealing the deep trouble she is in with her father. When Grace learns that Jayden has been released to spend time with her father, Grace pours out her fears for the girl to Jack, but he thinks she is reading too much into the situation and refuses to go and get the girl. Grace becomes so enraged that she smashes Jack’s favorite table lamp and decides upon a course that could be dangerous.

Woven into Grace and Jayden’s stories are episodes involving several of the other patients, such as the already mentioned Sammy, who continually tries to run away and then is devastated when his doll is stolen; and there’s Luis (Kevin Hernandez), who loves pulling off pranks; and African American Marcus (Keith Stanfield). The latter, at 18, is being prepared to leave, but is very much afraid that he cannot make it outside. He writes angry rap lyrics and often resists attempts to help him—and yet he becomes a fine conveyor of grace when Jayden, on her birthday waits fruitlessly for several hours for her father to come and pick her up. No telling what the despairing girl might have done if it weren’t for Marcus. The scene is a real throat-lumping one. There is another memorable episode when the foster parents who had taken Mason in treat everyone to a party, and Mason pays tribute to them—but for their loving acceptance, he says, he would not be here today.

There are so many heart-felt scenes in the film, ones that could have been mawkish or syrupy in the hands of a less gifted director/writer, as well as an incredibly good cast. Some of the characters are a hair’s breadth from spinning out of control. Grace herself breaks Mason’s heart when she remains silent to his plea to open up and share with him her pain and fears. She is like the apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans in that she knows what she should do, but cannot do it.

Not since the moving sequences between therapist and teenaged patient in Ordinary People have I seen such an honest and frank approach to the mentally and emotionally disturbed—nor since the Spitfire Grill such a well-rounded portrait of a wounded healer. Grace is a natural counselor able to discern and compassionately reach out to those who are wounded. Were she religious, she might well become a compassionate minister. But in the third act of the film, it is she who must be healed, and how the process begins fills the viewer with renewed hope and a gladness that despite “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” life is good and full of promise for her, and possibly for some of the youth as well. This is a good visual parable revealing the social aspect of healing and that grace can emanate from unexpected sources.

 The full version with 9 discussion questions will be in the November issue of the journal Visual Parables.



American Beauty (1999)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 6.

Our Star rating (1-5): 5

 He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet

so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

 We are the hollow men,

We are the stuffed men…

In this last of meeting places

We grope together

And avoid speech

Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

From  T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”


Lester and his wife Carolyn have drifted far apart
(c) Dreamworks SKG

The title of this incredibly fine film can be taken several ways. It is the lovely Angela, the teenager who arouses jaded Lester Burnham from his lethargy and fills his erotic dreams day and night. It could be Carolyn Burnham’s roses, whose petals cover parts of Angela’s body in Lester’s dreams. It could refer to the American dream, which Lester and Carolyn seem to be living. Or it could be the beauty which their new teenage neighbor Ricky Fitts sees everywhere, and especially in the Burnham’s daughter Jane. American Beauty starts out as a satire on American suburban life and values, but ends on a profound note of joy mixed with tragedy and a strangely triumphant message affirming the beauty of life.

When we first meet them the Burnhams (Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening) seem to be the perfect embodiment of T.S. Elliott’s poem. Lester’s awakening comes from two directions. His company has called in an efficiency expert to help them downsize. Part of their game is to have every staff member write a description of what they do. Lester sees that this is basically to be a futile plea for maintaining one’s job. He has had enough of servility in a dead-end, so he refuses to cooperate, writing instead an outrageous note of rebellion. Because he knows of the peccadilloes of his boss, he is able to negotiate a fat severance package. On the home front he is struck by the beauty of Angela, the friend whom his surly daughter Jane has brought home. He almost drools over her, so long has it been since he has engaged in sex with his success-obsessed wife Carolyn. He enters into an amusing body-building regimen so as to impress her.

Carolyn, on the other hand, has become an obsequious would-be real estate tycoon whose model is the local agent celebrity Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). She has become so obsessed that she cannot give a moment’s thought to Lester’s leaving his job, other than to bemoan the loss of his income and status. In one poignant scene Lester asks her, “When did you become so joyless?” She enters into an affair shortly after she toadies up to Buddy at a realtor’s meeting. In one of the funniest discoveries to be seen on film, she is found out by Lester when he takes a job at a burger restaurant and sees them passionately embracing while they are waiting for their order to be filled at the take-out window.

Meanwhile Jane (Thora Birch) has felt put-upon by her creepy next door neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley). His hair cut unstylishly short military fashion, he keeps aiming his camcorder in her direction, even when she is at her bedroom window. At school he comes up to her and Angela to introduce himself. Angela is upset because he obviously is interested in Jane rather than her. The blond beauty is not used to being passed over–she thoroughly enjoys the attention Jane’s father gives her. Jane finally overcomes her repulsion over Ricky’s videotaping her, discovering the beauty within herself that he sees but which she had not realized. He tells her in one scene that he sees beauty everywhere, that there is so much around him that he feels like bursting at times.

Ricky’s father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper( is a control freak who makes life anything but beautiful for his son and mousy wife. When two gay neighbors, ironically the only ones in the film to be truly enjoying the suburban way of life, call on the Fitts to welcome them to the neighborhood, the Colonel’s attitude is so frosty that you can almost see ice cubes forming in the air. The suspicious Colonel makes Ricky submit to him a urine sample weekly so that he can check to see if his son is using drugs! Ricky has retreated into his own world, one that includes drug dealing in order to pay for his expensive electronic equipment. We wonder where or how the boy has come to be so sensitive to the beauty of life, his own domestic life being so ugly.

It is hard to believe that this is the first film directed by Sam Mendes and the first screenplay to be produced by Alan Ball–though both are veterans of the stage, and Ball highly successful in television. Unfortunately there are some mixed signals sent out in their film, Ricky’s drug dealing apparently accepted as a clever way of evading his father’s constant surveillance and earning money for his hobbies. Despite this, however, this is that rare film which keeps one thinking long after the credits have faded. It is as funny as films get, and it is also an American tragedy, although not what it might at first seem like. The tragedy is not that one character dies, but that the one who lives is essentially dead to the beauty and glory of life that the other has discovered, and which accompanies the deceased apparently even beyond death. The joy described in the film is very much like that which C.S. Lewis celebrates in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, although neither Ricky nor Lester could define its source as well.

Especially touching scene: Ricky shows Jane “the most beautiful thing I’ve filmed.” It is not a rose or other flower, but a simple plastic bag blown by the wind. The common object takes on a transcendent beauty as it seemingly dances along and above the ground. Ricky says that electricity seemed to fill the air as the bag danced for 15 minutes like a little kid. “I realized there was Something behind the thing, and this benevolent force wanted me to know everything is O.K. I need to remember. Sometimes there is so much beauty in the world that I can’t take it–and my heart is just going to cave in.” At that moment at least, Ricky is “not far from the kingdom of God,” as Someone might have said long ago.

Most profound of all, however is the strange conversion of Lester Burnham that begins with his meeting of Ricky and concludes like a Flannery O’Connor story. As soon as the film turns tragic it immediately becomes a resurrection comedy, albeit a dark one in which the darkness is swallowed by Light.