American Pastoral

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
American Pastoral Movie Poster Image
Talented cast can't save mature, disappointing adaptation.
  • R
  • 2016
  • 126 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Deals with complex sociopolitical issues like competing visions of America, the zealotry of youth vs. the complacency of middle age, how appearances suggest happiness and success, and why sometimes even the people most likely to succeed don't get the life you imagine.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Swede is a loving husband and father who never gives up on his daughter. Dawn stands up to her future father-in-law about why she wants to marry Swede. Swede's parents unconditionally stand by him regardless of all the scandal and tragedy.

Violence

Historical footage of anti-Vietnam protests, the self-immolation of the Buddhist priest in Saigon, and more. A woman plants a bomb that kills a gas station attendant. A city erupts in race riots, with guns fired. People shoot at buildings. A man grabs a woman violently and pushes her against a wall. A woman points a gun at a man and orders him to get away. A woman sobs uncontrollably and is institutionalized after walking around naked and incoherent.

Sex

A young girl asks her father to kiss her; after two pecks on the cheek, she asks him to kiss her "the way you kiss Mother." A young woman overtly and crudely propositions a married man, touching herself and discussing what she'll do with him sexually. A married couple kisses.

Language

Frequent strong language in the second half of the movie, most said by a teen character: "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," and more. Historically accurate term "Negroes" is used several times, particularly during the riots.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink at meals; a teen smokes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that American Pastoral is an adaptation of Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Starting in the late 1940s, it follows a renowned high school athlete who seems to be the most likely to succeed but ends up with a tragic life. Starring Ewan McGregor (who also directs), Jennifer Connelly, and Dakota Fanning, the movie spans several decades and includes some historical violence, such as footage of anti-Vietnam protests, the self-burning of a Buddhist priest in Saigon, and the Newark race riots of 1967. A post office/service station is blown up as an act of political protest, killing one person. A person dies and people are shown grieving. Language is quite strong, with uses of "f--k," "f--king" "s--t," "a--hole," etc. (as well as the historically accurate term "Negro"). A few scenes include overt references to sex, adultery, and sexual acts. In one particularly uncomfortable scene, a tween girl asks her father to kiss her on the lips "the way you kiss Mother." Because of the mature subject matter and historical context, this period drama is best suited for adults and mature older teens.

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What's the story?

AMERICAN PASTORAL is based on Philip Roth's same-named Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Starting in the late 1940s, it tells the story of Seymour Levov, dubbed the "Swede," a WASPy-looking star athlete at a predominantly Jewish high school in New Jersey who seems bound for greatness. Swede (Ewan McGregor) seems to be finding that success as he takes over his father's profitable glove business, marries Irish-Catholic beauty queen/former Miss New Jersey Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and moves to the affluent town of Old Rimrock. The Levovs' only hiccup is that their only daughter, Mary, has a debilitating stutter -- but it doesn't keep her from expressing herself. Eventually, thoughtful young girl Mary grows up into zealous, rebellious teen Mary (Dakota Fanning) in the 1960s. After a local post office blows up and Mary, the prime suspect, goes missing, Swede's life never returns to normal.

Is it any good?

Despite starring talented actors, this drama unfortunately joins the pile of mediocre Philip Roth film adaptations. McGregor, who also directs, is glaringly miscast. Yes, he looks WASPy, but he's not the brawny, Nordic sports star that Roth's writing evokes (think a Chris Hemsworth type). The entire ensemble, including David Strathairn as author Nathan Zuckerman (a Roth stand-in), who narrates the story, does a fine job, but this story lacks the impact, thought-provoking social commentary, and empathy of the book.

Instead, the Levovs end up coming across as a whiny girl who fancies herself a revolutionary, a beautiful but unfulfilled housewife, and a clueless husband who can't see that his family is falling apart. The cinematography is impressive, with memorable, evocative shots of both landscapes like the Levov estate and more personal moments. Although the story's historical context and political questions are still relevant (what does it mean to make it in America? How are women, religious minorities, and people of color disenfranchised?), the movie American Pastoral falls quite short of Roth's revelatory novel.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in American Pastoral. Is all of it necessary to the story? Is it realistic? How does it compare to what you might see in an action movie? Does all media violence have the same impact?

  • What do you think of the movie's message about appearances versus reality?

  • The movie, like the book, explores competing ideas about America. Is that still relevant today? If so, how? What parts of the movie resonated most with you?

  • How are issues of class and race portrayed?

Movie details

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