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On the Basis of Sex
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that On the Basis of Sex is a biographical drama about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life from her time as one of a handful of women attending Harvard Law School in the late 1950s to her first groundbreaking gender-discrimination case in the early '70s. The movie is appropriate for teens and mature tweens. It includes a few scenes of non-graphic marital affection and intimacy, including kissing, embracing, and a glimpse of Ruth in her bra and slip. Language is infrequent but includes a few uses of words like "s--t" and "damn," plus one use of "f--k." Audiences will learn a lot about RBG's personal life and early career, and take away messages about perseverance, integrity, and the importance of equal opportunities for all. Felicity Jones stars as Ruth, and Armie Hammer co-stars as her supportive, loving attorney husband, Marty Ginsburg.
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What's the story?
ON THE BASIS OF SEX begins in 1956 at Harvard Law School's orientation: Young wife and mother Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is one of nine pioneering women in that year's class. As Ginsburg navigates sexist professors and classmates, she's also faced with a domestic tragedy when her loving husband, third-year law student Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), is diagnosed with testicular cancer. Ruth follows Marty to New York City and graduates from Columbia Law School, but she can't find a job as a practicing lawyer -- so she settles for teaching law as a professor in New Jersey. Fast-forward to 1970, when the Ginsburgs discover a tax law that discriminates against men who are caregivers and decide to contest it as a way to chip away at the country's mountain of sexist laws.
Is it any good?
This sincere, well-acted biopic benefits from Jones' and Hammer's performances, but it's not as informative or extraordinary as the documentary RBG. The first part of the film, at Harvard, feels slightly unnecessary other than the fact that it lets the filmmakers showcase Jones going toe to toe with the likes of Sam Waterston and Stephen Root, who play a dean and a professor who underestimate the women the law school has deigned to admit. This slowest third of the movie also establishes what a dream of a husband Marty is to Ruth. It's clear, from their earliest scenes together, that the Ginsburgs have a remarkable marriage.
Director Mimi Leder, working from a script by Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg's nephew), picks up the pace in the second act once it's 1970 and the Ginsburgs start working on the case (Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue) that puts her on the map as not only a law professor but an activist attorney. The character dynamics also ramp up because, by then, the Ginsburgs' oldest child, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), is an adolescent with her own feminist ideas, and the always entertaining Justin Theroux joins the proceedings as RBG's former camp friend/legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mel Wulf. On the Basis of Sex does a fine job capturing the early legal career of a feminist, legal, and cultural icon, but consider it a complement to -- not a substitute for -- documentaries and books about the legendary jurist.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about On the Basis of Sex and what it teaches about the history of gender discrimination law. Why are Ginsburg's contributions to equal rights still relevant today?
What are the movie's messages? How is gender discrimination detrimental to everyone -- not just women?
How is the Ginsburgs' marriage portrayed? Was it traditional? How was their partnership aspirational for married couples?
How accurate do you think the film is to what happened in real life? Why might filmmakers decide to tweak the facts in movies that are based on true stories?
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