A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Philomena is a moving, gracefully filmed drama that's somewhat teen-friendly, though younger teens may find the subjects -- teen pregnancy resulting in a traumatic stay at a nunnery, deep religious guilt, death from AIDS, abandonment, and guilt -- quite heavy. Expect some infrequent swearing, including one "f--k."
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What's the story?
British public servant Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), "resigned" by the government after a scandal where he unfortunately becomes in the word of a former colleague, "collateral damage," has no idea what to do next. He flirts with the idea of writing a book on Russian history, but a chance meeting with a woman (Michelle Fairley) at a dinner party leads him back to journalism, his former pursuit. Her mother is an Irish woman named PHILOMENA (Judi Dench). She has finally, after decades, shared a secret she'd been harboring for years. As a pregnant teen, she was abandoned by her father to live in a convent, where she worked for nothing in the laundry to "pay off" the nuns for caring for her (barely), and where she bore a son who, a few years later, was taken away from her without her permission and placed in an adoption with an American family. Surprising himself, Martin joins Philomena in her search for her son.
Is it any good?
Philomena is terrific. A winding, emotionally grueling and eloquently told tale of one woman's immense heartbreak, it approaches its delicate subject matter with the boldness of a soldier but the grace of a dancer, balancing the harshness with so much hope for humanity. Judi Dench is to thank for such a nuanced, forthright performance as the titular lead. She stays away from the maudlin by gifting her nervous Philomena with authentic (and developing) courage, a journey we totally buy because Dench's depiction doesn't doesn't condescend nor rely on shorthand. Steve Coogan keeps his signature sarcasm, which still exists here, in check, allowing his Martin to be jaded but not cruel. And when he comes dangerously close to it, he pulls himself back, as decent men do. (He also appears, as Martin, to be continually surprised by Philomena, a subtle but complex discovery to emote, but he does it well.) Together, they share a believable rapport that grows as the film unfolds.
Director Stephen Frears uses flashbacks to tell Philomena's story, and it's deliberate and disciplined enough so as not to annoy. (Flashbacks can be dicey, as many movies prove.) The wrap-up feels ever so slightly rushed, but nothing that distracts. Taking on a subject that may make its villains one-dimensional is tricky, and at times, the villainous nuns here careen dangerously close to caricature, but Frears pulls it off. And beautifully.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why Philomena kept her story for so long and why she decided to share it decades later. Why does she respond to the nuns the way she chooses to in the end? What is the ultimate message of the movie?
Does the film shed light on any real-life injustices you didn't know about before? What do you think of what happened to Philomena?
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