Sometimes it’s the films that seem so normal, so much about people just like us, which are the ones which render us completely incapacitated. Movies whose characters are people each of us knows, and who are all little bit ourselves as well. To make us look at ourselves, as though looking in a mirror, our own unconscious drives and resulting actions, the things we do in private that we don’t want to tell anyone, the habits we feel guilty about but continue to engage in regardless of shame and secrecy. The film MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN is filled with families, and by that I include families which are not bound only by biology. It’s pretty low on 20-something hipsters, but if you are a parent, or a high school student now or in the recent past, you will undoubtedly see yourself in one of the myriad characters. Perhaps not fully, or, like many of those on screen, you’ll recognize a sliver, have a flash of recognition you don’t want to admit to. That’s OK – we’re all in there. The film examines and questions the role of the virtual world in our “real” world. Are we acting upon impulses, making choices, exploring possibilities because they exist on the internet? Is the web a causative factor for our ‘bad’ behavior, our inability to confront those we care about, or our inability to admit our insecurities and faults? Or rather, does it just provide us a little more instant gratification to our already innate drives and desires we would have found another way to satisfy? Is the internet and our apparent ‘connectedness’ causing our problems, or is it merely amplifying our fundamental existential disconnectedness? These are all chicken/egg questions and maybe they are the fundamental existential questions for our digital age. If I think therefore I am, if I have 20,000 likes, am I a success?
MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN is one more example of a portrait made with many different brushstrokes and colors which in the end all blend to make a beautiful and telling picture. Following in the footsteps of the movies MAGNOLIA and LOVE ACTUALLY, it splits the difference between the two providing a nice middle ground of both tragedy as well as charming humor. Focusing on a handful of teenagers in a Texas high school and their parents, the role that virtual connectedness plays in their relationships is the heart of the story. Tim, played by the versatile Ansel Elgort, is the star football player on the high school team which no doubt provides the town with its sole opportunity to rally together. Tim sets the film in motion by deciding, in the midst of an existential crisis brought on by his recent abandonment by his mother, that football “doesn’t really matter” and quits the team rendering it hobbled. Needless to say everyone but Tim disagrees and is furious with him.
Another teenager with issues is Chris (Travis Tope) who is parented by the alarmingly realistic couple of Adam Sandler and Rosemary DeWitt. While Chris cannot complain about a fractured family as Tim can, he has a crippling Internet addiction which is so shameful to watch it made me truly uncomfortable. That’s not easy to do mind you. We have a female trifecta of the far too precocious and exploited Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) whose relationship with her mother Donna, played by Judy Greer in what may be her best film performance to date, is so twisted it’s like watching a shooting victim slowly bleed out, Allison (Elena Kampouris) who is starving in more ways than one, and Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) who, because of her mother’s pathologically obsessive internet security surveillance has less freedom than someone under house arrest with an ankle bracelet. Brandy’s mother is played to taut and agonizing perfection by Jennifer Garner whose beauty is marred by her fierce need for control and her paralyzing fear of the wide wide world we can access online.
All of these streams end up in one big, deep and dark lake, but along the way we get our feet wet, fall in the mud, almost drown and have to endure some brutal emotional truths and consequences. Hideously real, MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN shows how painfully disconnected we are from one another in reality. While the characters may be acute examples – modern icons of internet extremism – they are all too real and recognizable. The ensemble cast works incredibly well together. I enjoy seeing Adam Sandler step out of his typical sophomoric persona to play a long married father of teenage boys struggling to connect with his wife. Dean Norris, who plays Tim’s father, is an endearing struggling single father and is a far cry from his role as Hank on BREAKING BAD.
Writer/Director Jason Reitman has the gift of being able to simultaneously entertain us and make us feel. Deeply. He may be the consummate director of stories about “us” – real folks in real life doin’ our thang, and to capture that without parody or hyperbole takes an incredible talent. Like his previous efforts JUNO, YOUNG ADULT, and UP IN THE AIR, MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN has created characters which are bound to stay with you and become reference points for our lives. Chad Kultgen wrote the novel upon which the film is adapted and co-wrote the screenplay with Reitman. The look of the film also bears praise; the virtual interactions between characters are portrayed, through the brilliant production design of Bruce Curtis and art director Rodney Becker (both collaborated on A SCANNER DARKLY) as characters in their own right. Bringing alive the tweets, texts and other continuously pinging exchanges, is just like being with our own devices, insisting on being seen and heard. Just like an attention hungry toddler, we are all to one degree or another, held hostage by the virtual world and our now-indulged need for instant gratification of all kinds. You will undoubtedly have a long overdue talk with your devices after seeing MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN. It’s hard to change your relationships, both human and electronic, to set boundaries, but you will be all the better for it. And don’t forget to turn off your phone at the movies…(4.5 / 5)
Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Adam Sandler, Rosemary DeWitt, Ansel Elgort, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Travis Tope, Olivia Crocicchia, Kaitlyn Dever, Elena Kampouris
Running Time: 119 minutes
Movie Review Men, Women and Children