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 intense, stirring drama examines the life of Harvey Milk, a civil- and gay-rights advocate who was assassinated in 1978. It explores prejudice against homosexuals and traces the beginnings of the gay rights movement. The film offers an unflinching look at homophobia during that era. Expect strong language (including "f--k" and "s--t"), sexual situations, partial nudity, political manipulation, suicide, and murder. Some material may be too challenging for younger teens, but older teens and adults will find it a thought-provoking piece of history.
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What's the story?
On the eve of his 40th birthday, closeted New Yorker Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) meets the love of his life, Scott Smith (James Franco), and decides it's time to find a "new scene." He heads to San Francisco, where he and Smith open a camera shop in the Castro. There, determined to enjoy a life where he and others are free to live and love, Milk discovers his true calling as an advocate for equal rights and, eventually, a leader of the gay-rights movement. But after he finally succeeds in becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to public office by winning a seat on the city's Board of Supervisors in 1977, Milk meets Dan White (Josh Brolin). A conservative politician also serving on the board, White grows increasingly frustrated by his own inability to navigate politics' rough waters -- Milk's strong suit -- until, one fateful day in 1978, he unleashes his rage on Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).
Is it any good?
Although this film wears its politics on its sleeve, it does so with finely tuned storytelling and brilliant pacing that propels the action forward without sacrificing character development. "Message" films often fail to distinguish themselves cinematically because they're so focused on hitting their talking points -- but MILK isn't that kind of message movie. Penn delivers an Oscar-worthy perofrmance as Milk, a San Francisco icon who's presented with all the complexities of an everyman -- a charismatic, courageous everyman -- who finds his way to greatness. Happily, the supporting cast -- particularly Franco, Brolin, and Emile Hirsch as Milk's friend/fellow activist Cleve Jones -- are also up to snuff. (That said, though it's true Milk traveled in large social circles, his entourage could have been trimmed for the film so it wouldn't feel quite so crowded.)
Director Gus Van Sant, who unleashes a singular vision here, throws archival footage into the mix, giving it heft -- not that Milk really needed any more of it. The film is infused with a palpable sense of purpose. Soulful, enlightening, politically relevant, and thoroughly affecting, Milk will leave audiences breathless.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what Harvey Milk stood for -- pro and con. What do your kids think about the gay rights movement, and how do they think things have changed -- if at all -- since 1978? Does the movie have a point of view on Milk's role in history? Do your kids think it's accurate? Why? Another good discussion can be had about the art of the film itself and how the filmmakers used archival footage in the movie. Does that affect the authenticity of what people are seeing?
- In theaters: November 26, 2008
- On DVD or streaming: March 10, 2009
- Cast: Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn
- Director: Gus Van Sant
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 128 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language, some sexual content and brief violence
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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