American Beauty

 
Powerful acting, great story, but far too mature for kids.
  • Review Date: May 19, 2003
  • Rated: R
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1999
  • Running Time: 122 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

According to this movie, there’s no limit to the damage and destruction that humans can cause to one another, to their children, and to themselves. Materialism, hypocrisy, inappropriate behavior, and a crucial devaluing of relationships threaten middle-class American families. The only hope of redemption lies in the ability of its younger members to speak the truth, turn their backs on the demeaning values of their parents, and find strength in one another.

Positive role models

Virtually all of the adults in this movie are portrayed as dysfunctional. They're either self-absorbed, controlling, withdrawn, materialistic, sexually obsessed, violent, bigoted, or a combination of the above. The three teens at the center of the story are angry, troubled, and faced with a constant onslaught of the dysfunction that surrounds them. They're given no reasonable parenting and are fighting on their own for sanity in a near-insane environment.

Violence

In two scenes, an out-of-control father beats his teen son, causing injury and bloody cuts on the boy’s face and head. A mother forcefully slaps her teen daughter. A gunshot to the back of a character’s head has grisly results: blood splattered on the wall, on clothing, and the victim lying wide-eyed in death, blood still pouring from his head. Firing a gun at a shooting range is equated with “stress release.”

Sex

From the opening frames of this film -- in which a man is seen masturbating through the frosted glass of a shower -- to its final scenes, sexual fantasy, extramarital sex, teen sexual activity, and sexual dysfunction are prime subjects and are graphically illustrated. There's frequent undressing, partial nudity, and foreplay (breasts, men and women naked -- shown from behind). The male lead frequently and obsessively fantasizes about a seductive young girl.

Language

Constant sexual language and harsh swearing throughout. Multiple usage of "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," and "whore," as well as numerous euphemisms for masturbation. "Fags," "faggot," and other derogatory language is heard frequently, as are disparaging references to female body parts and female behavior.

Consumerism

Visible products/brands include Coca-Cola, Sheraton, Miller Lite, and TNT.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Lots of teen and adult pot smoking throughout. One young man is a marijuana dealer. Adults drink champagne at a party and wine with dinner, and one man offers beer to a teen. “Getting high” and being high are the topics of many conversations.

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.

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?

QUALITY
 

Lester, who narrates AMERICAN BEAUTY, 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.

Families can talk 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.

Movie details

Theatrical release date:October 1, 1999
DVD release date: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

This review of American Beauty was written by

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  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Adult Written bycba1942 April 9, 2008
age 0+
 

Genius

I think this is one of the most brilliant films I have ever had the pleasure of watching. It is not for weak minded audiences and I recommend that parents do not show it to young children for obvious reasons. The story line is engaging, the acting is spectacular, and the casting is perfect. Spacey proves to be an excellent choice for Lester and Bening is wonderful as Carolyn. Overall I give this film the highest of ratings and place it in the must see category for every movie fan.
Adult Written bykalleyeope April 9, 2008
Kid, 12 years old April 9, 2008
age 0+
 

Freaky and Potentialy Life Changing

I saw this movie and was in shock for days, it is definitely not for kids my age, but it is really an AMAZING movie. AMAZAING. I don't want to say to much, but the point of the movie is the dysfunctionality (is that a word?) of american families, so almost everything is wrong here, but that's the point. If you are over 15 GO WATCH THIS NOW.

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