A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this relentlessly dark picture of America and its values at the turn of the 21st century may have won a Best Picture Oscar, but it definitely isn't for kids. The film takes a hard, often bleakly comic look at the dissolution of the family and is full of sex, drugs, bigotry, and hypocrisy. Graphically sexual images include an adult fantasizing about his young daughter’s seductive friend, an adulterous relationship in a motel, masturbation, and partial nudity on several occasions. Homosexuality and homophobia are addressed. A young man is brutally beaten by his father more than once, and there are disturbing, bloody images of the violent death of a leading character. Language is coarse and explicit throughout, with constant use of sexual dialogue, swearing (including "f--k" and "s--t"), and terms disparaging to women and homosexuals. Kids and adults smoke pot in many scenes, and “getting high” is seen as a release from daily despair.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a 42-year-old man who's lost touch with anything that made him feel alive. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a Realtor who's so highly focused that she's clenched. His daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is a sullen teenager. Both barely disguise their contempt for him, which he accepts as his due. One night at a high school basketball game, Lester sees a vision that transforms him. Jane performs in a cheerleading routine with a girl named Angela (Mena Suvari). Lester is overcome by Angela's youth and beauty, and for the first time in his memory, she gives him a goal: He wants to make love to her. He quits his job, begins to work out, smokes some very expensive marijuana supplied by the teenage boy next door, and buys the red Firebird he dreamed of back when he was passionate about his dreams. The boy next door (Wes Bentley) uses the money he makes from selling drugs to buy video equipment, with which he films everything he sees -- especially Jane.
Is it any good?
Lester, who narrates this riveting film, informs viewers at the beginning that he will be dead by the end. As in the classic Hemmingway short story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," he becomes passionate and vital at last, which is unsettling to everyone around him.
Teens are likely to consider this movie profound in the way that their parents considered The Graduate profound. Lester, like Dustin Hoffman's character Benjamin Braddock, is trying to get away from "plastics." Carolyn has buried her feelings with motivational tapes, a $4,000 sofa, and mantras like, "I WILL sell this house today!" Lester has escaped from a crushing feeling of inauthenticity by becoming numb. By telling the truth to himself and those around him, he is like the child in The Emperor's New Clothes, saying that the suburban dream is empty and that they won't allow themselves to be ordinary. And, most important, the teens are the real heroes of the movie, having already realized that the dream is empty. What they may not realize is that the real tragedy of Lester and Carolyn is that they once knew that, too, and it didn't prevent them from losing themselves.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the sexual behavior of the movie's teenage characters. How do the characters feel about sex? What are the consequences of their decisions and behavior? Do these seem realistic?
How does the movie address questions of teen identity? Do the teenagers in this movie feel real to you? Why or why not?
This movie isn't for most teens, but those who do see it can use it as a way to begin conversations about the ways that families communicate, the choices we make about sex and drugs, and the ways that we find meaning in a complicated world.
- In theaters: October 1, 1999
- On DVD or streaming: March 4, 2003
- Cast: Annette Bening, Kevin Spacey, Mena Suvari
- Director: Sam Mendes
- Studio: DreamWorks
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 122 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: nudity, sexual references, profanity, and drug use
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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