No Alternative

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
No Alternative Movie Poster Image
Drugs, sex, profanity in dark coming-of-age story.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 97 minutes

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

Positive Messages

No positive messages. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

No positive role models. 


One of the characters finds the gun in his father's closet, takes it out, and puts it to his mouth; in the next scene, his sister and mother find him dead on the parents' bed; some blood. One of the characters mentions his attempted suicide; brief shot of the cuts on and around his wrists. A teen girl beats up another teen girl in a classroom. 


Teens shown on the verge of having sex -- oral sex in a car, and sex in a park. One of the lead characters, who has sex with a girl who he thought had been, like him, a virgin, discovers he has genital warts. Teen boys repeatedly ask their friend if he had sex with his date. A teen girl tells the sister of the boy she's seeing that they had sex, and "I've had better." 


Frequent profanity. "F--k" frequently used. "C--t" used by a police officer. One of the lead characters, a suburban white teenager, takes on the persona of an African American and performs hip-hop and often uses the "N" word. "S--t," "a--hole," "piss," "ass." Teens use the word "retard." A girl is called a "f---king whore." "Douchebag." 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens shown sneaking out of their houses to binge drink and smoke marijuana. Teens often shown drinking. One of the lead characters has been prescribed a plethora of mood-altering drugs and later tries to sell them at an AA meeting. Same character shown taking these pills by washing them down with vodka taken from her parents' liquor cabinet. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that No Alternative is a 2018 coming-of-age drama in which a teen boy in the mid-90s becomes obsessed with making his band successful in the midst of personal and family issues. A character commits suicide by putting a gun to his mouth -- family members find him. Another character talks of his attempted suicide, and shows the scars on his wrists. Another character is unflinchingly shown struggling with mental health issues, including moments of screaming, crying, and calling her mother a "f--king bitch." This same character is shown trying to sell the prescription medication she takes to people in an AA meeting. A teen discovers that he has genital warts after sleeping with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Teens are frequently shown drinking, smoking cigarettes, and smoking marijuana. Constant profanity, including a white character using the "N" word while rapping (and a debate with an African American man who calls her out on it), "f--k," "motherf---er," and "c--t." A teen girl attacks another girl in a classroom when the girl tells her that she had sex with her brother and adds, "I've had better." Overall, the movie has some very dark turns, and fearlessly addresses such themes as suicide, mental health, and teen sex. 

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What's the story?

In the aftermath of Kurt Cobain's suicide, high school senior Thomas Harrison starts playing drums in a band in NO ALTERNATIVE. They practice in the basement, and as the songs start coming together, Thomas is determined to make the band successful. Meanwhile, his sister Bridget, two years younger and struggling with mental illness, finds a keyboard in some bushes, takes it home, puts in some batteries, and begins recording her own music under the hip-hop alias Bri Da B. Their father (Harry Hamlin), a Republican judge, is under scrutiny and death threats after a woman suffering from bipolar disorder is found guilty of assaulting her lover, is released on bail deemed too low by the local populace, then kills her lover. He heeds the advice of law enforcement, and buys a handgun for self-defense. Their mother (Kathryn Erbe) struggles to hold the family together amid the chaos.

As Thomas's band constantly rehearses before going off to record their demo, Bridget, after a shaky start, begins to attract a cult following for her unusual performances as Bri Da B in a local coffeeshop. Thomas is starting to get more serious with the younger girl he's dating who might not be as innocent as she seems, and Bridget starts spending time with a Sarah Lawrence student who is an intellectual type obsessed with surrealism and is also a recovering alcoholic. While Bridget seems to be struggling the most--living with mental illness while growing increasingly skeptical of the medications she has been prescribed--Thomas's problems become more apparent as his problems begin to overwhelm him and his dark side begins to emerge. 

Is it any good?

This movie is a mixed bag. When it's good, it's very good, but when it isn't, there's a disappointment that overwhelms what's clearly a brave and earnest project. The acting across the board is incredible, fearless, and at times gut-wrenching. The tableau of '90s grunge teens smoking and drinking at parties while affecting jaded attitudes is as perfect at capturing the time as Dazed and Confused was for capturing the '70s. The politics and shifting alliances inherent in the life of a basement band shows some obvious real-life experience with trying to get a band off the ground. The movie also makes a powerful statement on the stigmatization of mental illness, and the mom's later-life realizations of the quiet desperation in John Lennon's voice in "Help!" is an incredible moment, and like much of the movie, not easily forgotten. 

But as No Alternative goes on, there are parts that seem so forced and so ham-fisted, it feels like you're being manipulated. While the movie and the story are obviously so personal and mean so much to the filmmaker, there are plot points that come off as being shoehorned in to make these broader points. For instance, there's a scene in which Bridget, a white suburban teenager who starts performing as Bri Da B, an African American hip-hop persona, is called out after her performance by an African American man for her use of the "N" word in her lyrics. The scene feels like it's put in there to anticipate justifiable reactions to her use of the word. This is one of a few examples that grow in frequency as the movie progresses in which the story arc is bent to fit the message. And the ending, as messy as it seems on the surface, comes off as too neat and tidy for all the terrible things that have happened, and in terms of the music, after so much that came off as accurate, it's disappointing to feel like you're left with an origin story of rap metal. 



Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about coming-of-age movies. How does No Alternative compare to others you've seen?

  • What were some of the ways in which the movie brought the '90s to life?  

  • In one scene, a white suburban teen girl performs in her African American hip-hop persona, frequently using the "N" word in her lyrics. She is confronted by an African American man about this, and basically answers that all she's doing is copying the music she listens to. Is this a satisfactory answer that addresses the many problems of a white person using a racial slur in a performance? 

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