Less Than Zero

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Less Than Zero Movie Poster Image
'80s drama about teen addiction has swearing, sex.
  • R
  • 1987
  • 98 minutes

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

Positive Messages

Stupid and irresponsible actions can have dire consequences. Love can't cure addiction.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Julian is charming but insubstantial and when he becomes addicted to cocaine, his life spirals out of control. His friends try to help him but can't.


A drug dealer hits the friend of an addict who owes him a lot of money. Others get involved in the melee. An addict is forced to pay what he owes with sexual favors.


A clothed couple has sex. Two naked men are briefly seen touching each other but no genitals are seen. One was forced to be there to repay a debt to a pimp. A young man's naked behind is seen.  A vandal has written on a wall, "Julian gives great head and is dead."



"F--k," "s--t," "p---y," "ass," and "pissed."


Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. A character is a cocaine addict.  Frequent cocaine use is seen. An addict is seen sick and vomiting from withdrawal.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the 1987 Less Than Zero is based on the Brett Easton Ellis novel of the same name, chronicling the cocaine-fueled excesses of spoiled, wealthy young Los Angeles high school graduates. A charismatic addict is in debt to a local dealer and pimp and is forced to pay what he owes with sexual favors. The club scene is a backdrop, as are L.A. mansions, where  20-year-olds have sex against the wall while their divorced parents celebrate Christmas sipping wine inside. Addiction and cigarette and alcohol use are depicted throughout. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "p---y," and "ass." Two naked men are briefly seen touching each other but no genitals are seen. A young man's naked behind is seen. A vandal has written on a wall, "Julian gives great head and is dead."


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What's the story?

LESS THAN ZERO follows wealthy Los Angeles teens Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), Blair (Jami Gertz), and Clay (Andrew McCarthy) as they separate after high school graduation. Clay goes to college. His girlfriend Blair reneges on her promise to continue her education and stays behind to model and, it turns out, do cocaine and party. Feeling alone, she and Julian begin a relationship, and that pains Clay when he finds out. Julian is a down-and-out addict by the time Clay returns six months later, in dire need of salvation. Julian is hugely in debt to dealer and pimp Rip (James Spader) and can only continue to get more drugs and pay back what he owes by reluctantly turning tricks for Rip. Julian's father gives up on his son, leaving Julian to steal from other wealthy parents. In the effort to save Julian, who has promised to quit drugs, Clay and Blair chase him down to Palm Springs and physically fight with the evil and heartless Rip. Unsurprisingly, tragedy ensues.

Is it any good?

As movies about addiction go, this isn't one of the better ones. You can view Less Than Zero as a cautionary tale or a high-production-value docudrama on self-created problems of the rich and spoiled, but don't expect anything other than the well-worn trajectory of dozens of other movies about addicts and their problems. Some teens may recognize friends and situations from their own lives, but familiarity can't erase the stubborn cluelessness of Clay, who the script suggests can't seem to understand the seriousness of addiction, and the unreliability of addicts. Downey Jr. is compelling as always, but the script doesn't imbue his strung-out crack user with any more meaning than usually seen in films about the downward progression of addicts and how they affect their families and friends.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Less Than Zero compares to other films with addicted characters like Ben Is Back and Beautiful Boy. What are the similarities? What are the differences?

  • Julian has already been to rehab. Does it seem as if Clay is slow to recognize how sick his friend is? Do you think people are more knowledgeable today about the dangers of drug use? Why or why not?

  • Why are movies about addiction so popular?  

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age tales

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