Hannah and Her Sisters

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Hannah and Her Sisters Movie Poster Image
Brilliant but mature comic-drama about an imperfect family.
  • PG-13
  • 1986
  • 103 minutes

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A lot or a little?

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

Positive Messages

Asserts that people can take positive steps to becoming their best selves and can overcome past behaviors. Creativity and dysfunction are seen as going hand in hand. Characters have been created as complex, multifaceted beings, advancing the concept that people are neither all good nor all bad; their very humanness means that mistakes will be made. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Central characters all are revealed as being "in development." Each has moments in which he or she faces up to weaknesses, must make important choices, and reflects on relationships with the others. All make progress, ultimately opting for loyalty and self-respect, despite questionable conduct in the past. Owing perhaps to its being set in the 1980s among New York City's upper and upper-middle class, there's no ethnic diversity.  

Violence
Sex

No nudity or actual overt sexual activity other than kissing and passionately embracing. However, sexuality, longing, and sexual fantasizing are core elements of the story. Key characters contemplate and then engage in adultery. Lovers are seen in bed after intercourse. References to masturbation, child molestation, AIDS, and homosexuality.

Language

Some swearing and sexual references: "ass," "damn," "for Christ's sake," "tight-ass," "hell," "masturbate," "knock off little Greek boys," "banging her sister," "whorehouse."

Consumerism

Some NYC locations and businesses are shown: St. Regis-Sheraton Hotel, Mt. Sinai Hospital, Pageant Books, Carlyle Restaurant, King Menswear. Wonder Bread and Hellmann's Mayonnaise are part of a visual joke.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Substance abuse and addiction play a part in the backstories of several characters: One sister is a recovering alcoholic; a second sister has a cocaine problem -- she's shown high on the drug in several scenes and snorts cocaine in another; and the girls' mother is an alcoholic who "falls off the wagon" on-screen. Wine and other alcoholic beverages are consumed in numerous social settings; toasts are delivered. References to AA, Quaaludes, Seconal. Characters smoke.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Hannah and Her Sisters is a grown-up movie best for mature teens and an ideal film to watch as a family. In essence, it's a seriocomic gift, with profound concepts about life, lightened by delicious laughs that emerge from the characters and their relationships rather than situations or pratfalls. Woody Allen has created an extended family of rich characters, all of whom are complex "works in progress." Sex and sexual longing are key elements of some story lines, as is past and present drug and alcohol abuse. Themes include dishonesty, infidelity, codependency, and self-realization (or the lack of it). Sexual scenes are limited to passionate kissing and embracing, plus a few moments in bed post-intercourse. A number of characters have substance-abuse issues (a woman snorts cocaine on camera), and drinking and smoking frequently occur. Language includes mild swearing ("hell, " "ass," "Jesus Christ") and sexual references (masturbation, "whorehouse," "banging her sister," "knock off little Greek boys").

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What's the story?

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS takes place over two years, bookended by the family's Thanksgiving dinners in New York City in the mid-1980s. Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the seemingly wise sister, the holder-together of all the other challenging members of the family, the peacemaker, the caretaker, and the wise one. Holly (Dianne Wiest) is the most creative sister, the most agitated, growing older alone, dealing with drug issues, floundering in search of herself, a man, and a career. Lee (Barbara Hershey) is the most sensual of the three, a recovering alcoholic, in a relationship with an older artist, unsure of what direction to take with her life. Surrounding this core threesome are: lovesick Elliot (Michael Caine), Hannah's husband; hypochondriac Michael (Woody Allen), Hannah's ex-husband; the sisters' parents; and assorted friends and lovers who fill the screen with warmth, humor, and their own individualized dysfunctions. Over the course of two years, characters fall in and out of love, forge new careers and leave old ones behind, and connect and disconnect -- battling with themselves and with each other. The stakes are always high: marriages, integrity, self-awareness, and the willingness to live and accept life as it comes. 

Is it any good?

Starting with an artful, ingenious, and, at times, very funny script, writer-director Woody Allen tells a story about family that will never get old; it's too true and too authentic. There are enough memorable characters here, all fully developed and beautifully performed (both Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest won Supporting Actor/Actress Academy Awards), to fill a dozen movies. The rich humor comes from the complexity of character, the foibles accompanying real people trying to survive in a challenging world, and the eccentricities of creativity. It's one of Woody Allen's most accomplished triumphs. He has proven here to be an undeniable genius at creating characters at their most vulnerable, their most eccentric, and their most human and being as funny as he is profound. Because of the mature themes (adultery, substance abuse, struggling to find one's place in the world), Hannah and Her Sisters is recommended for mature teens.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about and define different genres of movie humor (for example, spoof, sitcom, character comedy, topical, satire). Which kind of comedy provides the most laughs in Hannah and Her Sisters? List some incidents that bolster your answer.

  • When a movie is as compelling many years after it was made as when it was released, the movie is said to have "held up" over time. Do you think this film "holds up" over time? Why?

  • Woody Allen chose not to have Hannah find out about Elliot's affair with her sister, Lee. Is it ever easy to decide between honesty and hurtfulness? Do you agree that this was a case in which honesty would simply have been too hurtful? How would this movie have changed if Allen had made a different choice?

Movie details

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