A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Dear Dictator is a high-concept comedy about the unexpected friendship between a U.S. teen (Odeya Rush) and a murderous despot (Michael Caine). It has a fair bit of strong language (including "f--k," "s--t," and more) and some sexuality (no nudity, but teens film themselves having sex off camera, and one character has a fixation on licking feet). All of the movie's violence occurs offscreen but includes executions of political prisoners and an attempted teen suicide -- all played for laughs.
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What's the story?
In DEAR DICTATOR, rebellious teen Tatiana (Odeya Rush) flippantly fulfills a class assignment to "write to a famous person" by sending a letter to infamous, murderous tyrant General Anton Vincent (Michael Caine). When the despot is deposed, he flees to America -- specifically to Tatiana's house. Hijinks ensue as Tatiana tries to hide her human rights-abusing new friend from her husband-hunting mom (Katie Holmes) while Vincent teaches Tatiana how to take over her school.
Is it any good?
This comedy has a high concept premise and little else. The idea of a sullen teen and a notorious dictator being pen pals is a rich one, open to a world of possibilities. The high school rebellion has promise, and the filmmakers do get laughs from how comically plain-spoken the despot's correspondence is: "Thank you for your lovely music. My daughter enjoyed it. The rebels have surrounded the capital." Such a comedy could go fully dark (a gloomy Goth learns about actual suffering), gonzo à la Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator, or nebbishy à la Woody Allen's Bananas. Or it could have been an even more subversive Heathers -- or Mean Girls with actual guerilla warfare. Unfortunately, Dear Dictator doesn't choose any true direction. It ducks the realities of despotism: Vincent is the cuddly kind of torturer and mass murderer who's handy around the house. Because viewers never learn anything about him or his country, the images of him on a tricycle or wearing a snarky T-shirt don't pay off. The filmmakers also don't seem to have thought much about his background; he's a third-generation dictator but calls himself a "rebel"? The only people we see from his country are black (he says he's "Latino at heart" or something like that) -- but he's a pale white guy with a South London accent. The film steadfastly avoids political context, apart from some weak calling-out of American hypocrisy during one of Vincent's fits of pique.
The filmmakers also take a limp stab at religious hypocrisy by featuring a romantic interest who loves the Bible and death metal and then falls into a sex tape/cyberbullying trap. Like every other thread, though, that one goes unexplored. It certainly can't gain satirical traction when the film refuses to confront the morality of Tatiana aiding and abetting a human rights violator -- and then taking coup lessons from him. Even a teen suicide attempt is played for laughs. And the off-putting B story about Tatiana's mother's desperate husband-hunting feels totally unnecessary; it's basically an excuse to show her dentist lover (Seth Green) licking her feet. Some performances are played at a jokey-jokey level, while others (notably the two leads) play it low and slow. But any chance of a Harold and Maude-type dynamic is eliminated the first time the wacky comedy music plays. As the moody Tatiana, Rush shows some talent for physical comedy. But because Dear Dictator is reluctant to dive deeply into anything, the proceedings stay at kiddie-pool depth.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Dear Dictator's characters and messages. Are any of the characters role models? Do they learn anything over the course of the movie? Do they earn our forgiveness?
The women in the movie are largely defined by their relationships with men -- but there's a female lead and a top female supporting character, and the co-writer and co-director is a woman. Would you call it a feminist film?
Can you think of other comedies about people who do terrible things? What makes them funny?
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