Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold Movie Poster Image
Deeply affecting doc about great writer has mature themes.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 94 minutes

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

Positive Messages

Themes include a strong passion for work, perseverance, commitment to excellence, empathy, integrity, and the importance of friends and family. Illustrates the positive impact of solid journalism and insightful, honest writing. Discusses the nature and communality of grief -- no life, no matter how blessed, is immune to tragedy.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Didion is determined, hardworking, honest, and perceptive. A remarkably gifted writer, she seeks challenges and masters whatever she undertakes. She reflects on her strengths and her weaknesses, making every effort to accommodate both. A devoted wife, mother, and friend, she commits fully to important relationships. Ethnic diversity reflected in the film's subject matter and interviewees. 


Archival photos, newsreel footage, and conversations refer to police brutality, civil unrest, rape, and victimization. Characters deal with grief and sadness.


Anecdote about a little boy whose testicles are inadvertently "peeking" out of his swimsuit.


Coca-Cola seen.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

On-camera social drinking. Conversations about drunkenness, drug abuse (including a recollection of a 5-year-old girl on acid). Archival footage shows marijuana use. Many photos and video footage show central characters smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is a documentary about an award-winning, respected American writer who has given voice to a wide range of events and ideas over the past 50 years as a journalist, essayist, novelist, and screenwriter. Augmenting Didion's captivating appearance are interviews with close friends and colleagues, as well as archival photographs and video footage. Some of the material includes clips of violent confrontations between police and anti-war demonstrators in the '60s and '70s, as well as marijuana use, drinking, and smoking. There are some sad and poignant moments in the film; grief is a topic with which Didion has had to struggle intensely during her later years. But the film is highly recommended for families with mature teens, both for its historical relevance and its portrait of a compelling, accomplished woman, as well as its themes of perseverance, empathy, and integrity.

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What's the story?

Griffin Dunne, Joan Didion's nephew, is the director and creative force behind JOAN DIDION: THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD. Dunne makes the most of their close relationship, inspiring his aunt to speak freely and candidly about her life in a series of in-depth interviews, recollections, and readings from her work. Notable friends and colleagues -- including playwright David Hare, writer Calvin Trillin, Robert Silvers (the founder of The New York Review of Books), critic Hilton Als, and Vanessa Redgrave -- give testimony to Didion's unique talent and intriguing persona. A gifted writer, Didion excelled early, pursued her ambition forcefully, and produced a body of work that includes award-winning essays, news stories, novels, and screenplays. She and her husband, John Gregory Dunne -- also a talented and prolific writer -- are tightly bound. They're shown as they meet, connect, and make a meaningful, often glamorous, life together. Their adopted daughter, Quintana, completes the family. The film is structured chronologically, and when tragedy befalls the family in the latter third of the film, all that has gone before serves to make it even more heartbreaking.

Is it any good?

For those already familiar with Didion's life and work, this documentary is a loving tribute; for those who don't know her, it's a revelation. Didion is expressive, articulate, and charismatic. She brings those qualities center stage, especially when she reads from her own writing, and it reveals how truly gifted she is. And on top of that, Dunne has gathered a group of formidable and engaging colleagues who are equally eloquent and who all admire and love their friend.

But Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold isn't a movie that simply extols the many virtues of its subject. Didion is too complex, too fierce, too self-aware for that. With her distinctive voice, her ability to look deeply into her own soul, and the relentlessly productive life she's led, Joan Didion is an uncommon woman, and her nephew has made a film that is as remarkable as its subject.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold uses historical events to illuminate Didion's personal story, and vice versa. How does her body of work reflect the times in which she has lived? Are the filmmakers effective in blending the two?

  • How does Didion's story encourage integrity, perseverance, and empathy? Why are these important character strengths?

  • An interviewee says: "Didion writes to find out what she thinks and feels." How does that sync up with Didion's own words: "I remember what it is to be me; that is always the point."

  • "The center will not hold" is a line from one of Didion's works. What does it mean in the context of this movie?

  • How does the movie tackle grief? Does the topic feel more immediate here because it's a documentary?

Movie details

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