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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Free Solo is a documentary about climber Alex Honnold, who attempts to scale the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite, California, without any ropes or safety gear. The actual climb itself is a monumental sequence -- and a testament to perseverance -- but other parts of the movie may not sit well with all viewers, including Alex's distant nature and laid-back attitude about death. Still, the film is worth watching for the amazing finale. Expect to hear discussions about death and see the faces of other climbers who fell and died. Language includes a use of "f--k," plus "s--t," "a--hole," and a few others. Alex is shown being affectionate with his girlfriend and preparing to move in together, but there's nothing remotely graphic. Someone makes a spoken reference to cigarette smoking.
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What's the story?
Climber Alex Honnold is one of a tiny percentage of humans who can FREE SOLO -- that is, scale mountains or cliffs without any kind of rope or safety gear. As the film begins, Honnold has already tackled Yosemite's 2,000-foot Half Dome and has set his sights on the nearby 3,000-foot El Capitan. Honnold practices and learns each and every little shelf and crevice of the edifice; at the same time, he meets Sanni McCandless, who becomes his girlfriend. During his months of training and practicing, Honnold falls, twice, and injures his ankle. When the time finally comes to climb El Capitan, he quickly realizes that something isn't right and gives up. Then, in June 2017, he tries again. Will he do what no human being has ever done before?
Is it any good?
This documentary's final 20 minutes capture a truly monumental moment in human achievement, but it's not particularly outstanding or revealing in depicting Honnold's day-to-day life. He's a problematic subject: He's distant and unemotional and perhaps even a little arrogant, and Free Solo has very little idea how to really explore these human factors. It tries to capture ordinary life moments, but the camera setups often draw too much attention to themselves. The movie also eavesdrops on Alex and Sanni as she patiently tries to come to grips with his laid-back attitude about dying, but it doesn't really seem to understand Sanni's side of things. Free Solo seems more focused on hero-worshipping Alex, with his warrior's way of life.
Marco Beltrami's score likewise tries to add some emotional pull to the film's early sequences but never quite works, although the suspenseful music during the last act is outstanding. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (a climber himself), Free Solo is, ultimately, a movie that knows mountain climbing. The filmmakers clearly love dropping all of the insider terms for various handholds and footholds, and other experienced climbers are interviewed, as are professional climbing camera operators and professional climbing journalists. All these little details add up to an intensely gripping finale that's guaranteed to make palms sweat -- and makes the whole venture worthwhile.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Free Solo deals with death and personal danger. What's the appeal of something so dangerous? What would make someone want to try this -- or not try it?
How well does the movie depict Sanni's point of view? Is she sympathetic?
Is the movie inspiring? Does it change the way you think about things? Does it make you want to try new things?
- In theaters: September 28, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: March 5, 2019
- Cast: Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless
- Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
- Studio: National Geographic
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts, Science and Nature
- Character Strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 100 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: brief strong language
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award
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