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A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that even though this drama is about a teenager who comes to grips with who he is and what he stands for, it's a very adult movie. The messages it sends about being authentic and courageous are admirable, but they're doled out harshly, and there's enough nudity, casual sex, swearing, and underage drinking and drug use to make it iffy even for older teens. There are moments of tenderness -- between Finn and his girlfriend, he and his mother -- that somewhat mitigate the tough parts. But the lesson, when it comes, is one bitter pill.
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What's the story?
Griffin Dunne's FIERCE PEOPLE is a masterful though sometimes heavy-handed morality tale set in 1980s New Jersey. Anton Yelchin stars as Finn, the precocious son of Liz Earl (Diane Lane), a physical therapist with a big heart and an even bigger appetite for cocaine and booze. Finn's father, an anthropologist who studies a fearsome Amazonian tribe called the Ishkanani, has invited him to visit, but the father-son reunion is ruined when Finn gets arrested while buying his mom a hit. Desperate to make Finn's legal troubles disappear and get clean once and for all, Liz calls wealthy old client Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland) for help. Ogden whisks Liz and Finn off to his estate in Vlyvalle, New Jersey, a town he rules so thoroughly that he even hand-picked its sheriff. He ensconces them in a quaint cottage, makes Liz his private therapist, and befriends Finn. It's a world Finn doesn't understand; it's as foreign to him as the Amazon. But he's soon lulled by the ease with which Osborne and his family carry themselves, and he grows to believe he's welcome there. That is, until someone decides he's crossed the line and punishes him swiftly, violating not only his body but his soul (it's a horrific scene filled with lots of violence and is discomfiting not just for teens but for adults, too). He soon discovers that the natives of Vlyvalle -- the rich -- are as wild and brutal as the Ishkanani ... maybe even worse.
Is it any good?
Dunne and screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn (who used his novel as inspiration) paint a sickeningly vivid picture of a world that seems thoroughly genteel at first glance but is primal under the surface. It's an engrossing film, despite connections made too forcefully between the Ishkanani and the residents of Vlyvalle and endless Ishkanani footage (we get the point). But in Yelchin, Dunne hit gold; he's at once removed and vulnerable, careful but curious, and eminently approachable. When he hurts, you hurt, too. His scenes with Lane -- graceful, natural and effortless, as always -- ring true.
One other small complaint: When you eventually find out who wronged Finn, you're not that surprised, which is a bit of a letdown -- as is the wrapped-with-a-neat-bow explanation for why Osborne seems so willing to help Liz out, no questions asked. Still, there's enough artistry and story here to keep viewers wanting more, and in the end, you won't walk away empty-handed. Disturbed, perhaps, but not disappointed.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the prevalence of rich, dysfunctional families in independent films. What draws filmmakers to this world? And, for that matter, what draws Finn to the Osborne family members in the first place? Why are they so appealing to him when they appear deplorable to viewers? Is Liz a good mother? Is her addiction romanticized? Does that happen often in movies? Also, what about the young Osbornes? Are affluent teens really like that, or is the movie making too broad a statement about them?
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