Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) directs first-time writer Kathy McWorter’s script about a Mississippi family as a Southern morality tale. Kevin Costner plays the important role of the father, returned Vietnam vet Stephen Simmons, but his name appears beneath that of Elijah Wood, an advance indication that the main story belongs to the children, his son Stu (Wood) and daughter Lidia (newcomer Lexi Randall), their black friends Elvadine (Latoya Chisholm) and Amber (Charlette Julius) – and their archenemies, “the damn Lipnickis.”
The early 1970’s are hard times for the Simmons family. Because of his Vietnam-related mental troubles, Stephen drifts from job to job, and seems to have forgotten how to relate to his wife Lois (Marie Winningham). Without much cash, they lose their house and have to move into a welfare shack. Lidia and Stu would prefer to segregate themselves and their friends according to sex when they start building a tree house in a magnificent 800-year-old live oak. However, their father orders them to work out a plan to share in the building and use of the structure, so they form a shaky alliance and finish building it. But when the bullying Lipnicki kids discover it, and also learn that the materials came from their family junkyard, they demand ownership. A war breaks out, which almost gets out of hand. In the passion of battle Stu and Lidia almost forget totally their father’s gentle teachings of love and tolerance in a fight scene that will remind you of “Lord of the Flies.”
This family film that teaches respect and love for all kinds of people is flawed in that there are several clichéd characters, especially the Lipnicki family. The head of this clan is portrayed as a loutish, scraggly-haired, red-necked cracker, and his brood of five kids equally unkempt. I mean these villains are really a mess! And the bigoted schoolteacher who tries to seat all the black kids in the back of the room is pictured as too prissy and easily bested by the kids. Also, the actors who play the Lipnickis garble their Southernese lines so badly that the producers should have provided subtitles so that we can understand them.
Nevertheless, this is a film of love and hate, pain and joy, laughter and tragedy well worth seeing. There is a scene in which Stephen gives a lesson in nonviolence to Stu and to two of the Lipnicki children that alone makes this film worth watching, even a tool for teaching peacemaking. At the county fair while Stu waits for his father to return with a cotton candy treat to take home for his sister and mother, the Lipicki kids spot him and, surrounding him, start to beat him up. Just then Stephen arrives carrying two sticks of cotton candy. He runs off the attackers ad takes Stu to their car. The two younger Lipnickis yell a taunt at Stu, whereupon, Stephen, still holding the sticks of cotton candy strides up to the children. They cringe backward as Stephen holds out the confection, giving one to each of them. Back at the car Stu, noting that those two had been beating him up, asks why did he do that. His father replies, “Because they look like that hadn’t been given anything in a long time.”
From this scene, and from what we see Stephen do for a black friend trapped in a mine cave-in, we might well consider the father a Christ figure. There also is a fine scene in which Stephen talks with his daughter about angels and God. Told from the viewpoint of young Lidia, the film is a story of growth, maturity and self-sacrifice, as Lidia and Stu discover the meaning of their father’s words, ” I can’t tell you never to fight, Stu. But if you want to know what I think, I think the only thing that keeps people truly safe and happy is love. I think that’s where men get their courage. That’s where countries get their strength. That’s where God grants us our miracles. And in the absence of love, Stuart, there is nothing, nothing in this world worth fighting for.”
At school Lidia reads from her class paper about her father, “My dad once said of fightin’, we were meant for better things, you and I. And these days when ever I’m ready to haul off and belt someone whose got my dander up, I here him whisper those words in my ear. My mama says people’s lives are like tapestries. The color and the beauty of the design is to bring all of the people you know, the things you’ve learned.” She lays aside her paper and continues, “But I learned this summer is that no matter now much people think they understand war, war will never understand people. It’s like a big machine that don’t nobody really know how to work. Once it gets out of hand, well it’s breakin’ all of the things you thought you was fightin’ for. Whole bunch of other good things you sort of forgot you had.” What a heritage their father bequeaths them!
There is a study/discussion guide for this film in my book FILMS & FAITH: Forty Discussion Guides, available for $10 (+$2 postage) from Visual Parables, 63 Boone Lake, Walton, KY 41094.