Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Cents Movie Poster Image
Well-meaning but sometimes confusing middle school drama.
  • NR
  • 2016
  • 90 minutes

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

Positive Messages

Middle-school kids pay consequences for bad behavior, learn the importance of honesty and forgiveness. Values promoted: determination, self-respect, making the most of one's inherent gifts.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Central character who is initially a rule-breaking, disrespectful, edgy 12-year-old learns about honesty, forgiveness, and positive behavior. It's not an easy lesson and comes with a heavy price. Her single mother is a dependable, loving, determined woman who fights hard for her dreams; she is a committed mom. Set in Albuquerque, film is ethnically diverse without calling attention to that fact.


"Pimp me out," "butt." Brief references to virginity and abortion.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

In one scene, parent takes what appears to be over-the-counter pills.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Cents takes place in an Albuquerque, New Mexico middle school and concerns some complex issues: truthfulness, jealousy, cyberbullying, and the challenges of fitting in. The filmmakers have attempted to capture real kids, a nuanced parent-child relationship, and one young girl's "coming-of-age" without the predictability of many movies about the adolescent experience. There is no violence, but upon occasion the kids behave cruelly and/or laugh at others who have been singled out for ridicule. An ethnically diverse cast (notable because it's seamlessly integrated without calling attention to that fact) tackles a script in which motives and narrative through-line are not always clear, but weighty messages are delivered with heart. Best for mature tweens and teens.  

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What's the story?

Samantha "Sammy" Baca (Julia Flores, understated and thoughtful) gets into some minor trouble at the opening of CENTS. Selling gum on campus isn't a big crime, but her mom, Angela (Monique Candelaria) is disappointed in her. Though they have only each other to rely on, their relationship is strained. Angela, a nurse practitioner, has been turned down by every medical school she's tried; her heart breaks, but she refuses to give up. Sammy, an utter genius at math (even calculus, not a usual subject for a 12-year-old) has difficulty fitting in. When she watches a group of her middle school's most popular girls running a "penny drive" for charity, Sammy decides to find a place for herself at the cafeteria table. She brings her math skills to the project, showing the girls how successful they can be by establishing a multi-level platform that could raise millions of dollars. It works, short-term. The problem is Sammy's concept is a "pyramid scheme," and the girls soon learn that it would take the participation of everyone on the planet to reach their goal. By that time, other problems have set in. Old hurts have appeared. The charitable effort finds some of the girls succumbing to the temptation of accessible money. And the school's mean girl has become very threatened by Sammy. It's everyone for herself as the internet boils over with anger, Sammy is made the butt of rude comments, and jealousy reigns supreme. As events escalate cheaters are called out, liars are caught, and kids, parents, and teachers are faced with making hard decisions that may severely impact their lives. 

Is it any good?

Good intentions, thought-provoking issues, and nuanced characters are defeated by a script with an overly-complicated plot, characters with deficient motivation, and a lack of clear resolutions. Apparently, writer-director Christopher Boone wanted to make an unpredictable, subtle film that would resonate with today's middle school audiences. He did, and yet he didn't. Sometimes subtlety muddies the waters. In this case, plot elements are spotlighted, then dropped (the penny drive simply fades away; the most devious player never pays a price for her mischief). Sammy's mathematics display on behalf of her mom looks great on film, but the reason for it and its impact are impenetrable. Still, solid performances, especially by Julia Flores, Esodie Geiger, and Monique Candelaria, and the earnestness with which it was made make Cents watchable. And, without a doubt, it delivers heartfelt messages about growing up, mother-daughter relationships, and learning from one's mistakes. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the similarities between the middle school in Cents, and schools with which you are familiar. What rang true for you in this movie? Is there any one student with whom you identified? Why? 

  • Both Ms. Dyer, the teacher, and Ms. Martinez, the principal, were very admirable characters. Despite the challenges, they always seemed to do the right thing. Think about a teacher or school administrator you admire. What makes them special? How has he or she impacted your life?

  • Talk about the ending of this movie. How do you project Sammy's going forward? Describe the attitude changes shown in the final scenes. 

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love comimg-of-age tales

Themes & Topics

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