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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Backyard Wilderness is a nature documentary that dramatizes how meaningful it can be to step away from screens and into the wilderness right outside -- or near -- our homes, particularly for children and teens. Although there's a brief fictional framing story, this is fundamentally a wildlife documentary, with lots of time-lapse footage to educate younger viewers about seasons' impact on animal life cycles and habitats. The movie is full of exciting visuals (which are particularly impressive when seen in 3D), but two moments may be a bit disturbing to sensitive viewers: A fox hunts, kills, and eats a deer (its remains are shown decomposing in time-lapse), and there's a heart-pounding moment when it seems like a mouse will be stomped on, but it manages to survive. The film encourages curiosity, observation, and appreciation of nature -- but also understanding that, in nature, there are no victims and villains, just the circle of life for predator and prey.
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What's the story?
BACKYARD WILDERNESS is a nature documentary wrapped in a fictionalized narrative about an 11-year-old girl who learns to appreciate the animals in her backyard and then becomes an observer and advocate for local wildlife. Directed by husband-and-wife filmmakers Andrew Young and Susan Todd and filmed on and around their family property in Croton-on-Hudson (about 45 minutes north of New York City), the movie follows Katie (Annie Fabian), a typical upper-middle-class kid who lives most of her life inside and online, along with her older brother, Ben (Bobby Axelrod), and her parents (played by Young and Todd). When Katie's school assignment asks her to pick an animal and research its life cycle and ecosystem, she's inspired to choose the spotted salamander after a magical encounter with them. The experience opens Katie's eyes to all the wildlife that lives literally outside the door of her family's home, including deer, foxes, coyotes, ducks, raccoons, various birds, the salamanders, and even mice.
Is it any good?
An ideal pick for nature lovers and budding environmentalists, this documentary is a tribute to the magical pull of nature right outside our homes and communities. The story uses narration and dialogue, but the real focus is always on nature. Katie, Ben, and their parents represent many Americans -- glued to their devices during most of their leisure time. The kids clearly suffer from what Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv (whose work inspired the documentary) calls "nature-deficit disorder" ... until Katie learns to appreciate all of the flora and fauna right at her doorstep.
The visuals are impressive and memorable, like when a duckling takes its first leaps with Tom Petty's iconic "Free Falling" playing in the background. There are plenty of other breathtaking moments detailing births, deaths, and the power of seasons on animals' lives. Be ready to see salamanders mating, a fawn's birth, animals hatching, and fox hunting a deer. At a brisk 45 minutes, the movie is a true circle-of-life experience. Kids will understand Katie's story arc from a screen-obsessed technophile who's uncomfortable without her phone or tablet to a nature-friendly animal lover. The documentary's messages should hit their mark and prompt kids (and their parents) to explore their nearby green spaces, woods, animal sanctuaries, and more outdoors.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about nature documentaries. How does Backyard Wilderness compare to other nature documentaries you've seen? What do you like about them?
What do you think about the narrator's statement that, in nature, there are "no villains or victims, just predator and prey"? Why do you think animals are often given human motives for hunting that make them seem sinister when they're just trying to eat?
- In theaters: March 21, 2018
- Cast: Caleigh Barker, Annie Fabian, Bobby Axelrod
- Directors: Andrew Young, Susan Todd
- Studio: SK Films
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Bugs, Cats, Dogs, and Mice, Science and Nature, Wild Animals
- Character strengths: Curiosity
- Run time: 45 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: June 22, 2020
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