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Martha Marcy May Marlene
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this superb indie psychological drama about a young woman's return to her family after years spent with a cult is both deeply engrossing and disturbing, with heavy themes of alienation, family estrangement, and trauma. Young women are sexually assaulted -- the scenes aren't graphic, but they are upsetting -- and a violent crime is committed. Characters drink, smoke (covertly), swear ("s--t," "f--k," and more), and display an unsettling alienation that comes from being traumatized.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
Two years after she drops out of her sister Lucy's (Sarah Paulson) life, unreachable and untraceable, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) reappears, calling, perturbed, from a phone booth. So begins the fragile reunion between the two, and Martha's attempt to settle into a reality that no longer feels ordinary. Martha's inability to readjust perplexes Lucy, who's now married (to an architect named Ted, played by Hugh Dancy). Little does Lucy know that all the time they were apart, Martha -- aka Marcy May -- was living on a farm with a cult of young adults led by a guitar-playing, book-loving, menacing older man named Patrick (John Hawkes). Memories of Martha's stay intrude at moments both major and mundane, threatening to destroy her homecoming.
Is it any good?
This film is quite an astonishing accomplishment. The most stunning thing about MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is that it's the product of a first-time director working with a first-time leading actress, a debut combination that could have, in less able hands, resulted in a forgettable (or worse) mess. What we have instead is a film that will surely launch the pair -- Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Ashley and Mary-Kate) into grander stages of their respective careers.
Moody, malevolent, and still deeply empathetic, Martha Marcy May Marlene (which was a huge hit at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival) doesn't dare judge Martha's life; it simply presents it. And that's more than enough. The horrors of her stay with Patrick's crew aren't made obvious; its treacherousness compiles until it strangles. Olsen makes great use of the movie's many near-silent moments, letting the camera linger on her face -- which switches from stoic to troubled on a dime. The movie only falters when it forgets to stay delicate, introducing a criminal element that's unnecessary. Can't cult experiences be grievous without them? The damage and dissonance that such isolation exacts is material enough.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why Martha joined Patrick's group. Was she aware that it was a cult, or is this a realization that comes later? How are cults typically portrayed in the media? Do you think they're ever glamorized?
Are the characters and their reactions/decisions believable? Why or why not? Are any of them intended to be role models?
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.