A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Pieces of a Woman is an excellent, emotionally intense drama about a woman (Vanessa Kirby) trying to process the loss of her newborn. Near the beginning, there's an incredibly realistic 20-minute childbirth scene that includes a no-holds-barred shot of the baby crowning. The baby subsequently dies, which is horribly tragic, and things understandably become strained between the parents. In an effort to get through that, the man (Shia LaBeouf) tries to engage his despondent girlfriend in sex. He's fairly forceful about it, but she consents, and it's not assault. Still, it could easily send a mixed message to teens. A man's genitals and backside are shown. There's lots of strong language ("f--k," "bitch") and substance use, too, including snorting cocaine, smoking/vaping, and drinking. While the film builds empathy for those who've suffered the loss of a child or grandchild, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which watching this tragedy and its aftermath would be of interest to teens.
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What's the story?
In PIECES OF A WOMAN, the home birth that Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) lovingly prepared for ends in tragedy. As the couple process their grief, their relationships with family and each other are strained. And as Martha struggles to accept her daughter's death, she learns she must live alongside her loss.
Is it any good?
Achingly raw, this drama allows an audience to understand -- but not feel -- the internal anguish of the loss of a baby. Without being emotionally manipulative, Pieces of a Woman brings to light many parents' worst fear. But viewers don't actually walk in Martha's shoes: We are with her, but we are not her. Kirby's performance is remarkable, particularly the authenticity she brings to the childbirth sequence; she resets the bar for how labor is portrayed in the media. But Martha is also aloof and keeps her feelings in her pocket -- we see that she has access to them, but she keeps them hidden from everyone else. Those feelings do escape from time to time, emerging as snarky asides or mocking expressions. When cornered, she explodes; but even then, it's a controlled blast. Her ability to keep Sean and her family at a distance keeps viewers at an arm's length, too. That's a smart device to allow the audience to get lost in the story, rather than drowning in Martha's sorrow.
The film also opens the door to see how grief can encompass and overtake a family. Martha's controlling mother (Ellen Burstyn, who's magnificent) is grappling with the loss of her granddaughter by trying to take over. Meanwhile, Sean is desperate for someone to throw him a life preserver, but no one is offering -- he's virtually left alone in his grief. LaBeouf's problematic real-life personal behavior may overshadow his phenomenal talent in portraying a father's agony. He's astounding as Sean, most impressively in the moment he first sees his baby when she takes her first breaths. Without words, he relays in a facial expression the surge of love and emotional connection that transpires in an instant. In the months after the baby passes, Sean's downward spiral makes it all too easy to judge, with audiences possibly slipping into the trap of focusing on Martha's heartbreak and ignoring Sean's, even though it clearly belongs to him as well. For anyone who's experienced the loss of a child, it will likely to be too relatable, too distressing. For other parents and caregivers, it's a "but for the grace of God" moment. And for teens, unless there's a good reason for them to watch the film, it's just not advisable. The story and its truthful twists and turns are likely to be upsetting for those who don't yet have the life experience to comprehend the psychological aftermath of a devastating event of this magnitude.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Pieces of a Woman handles the subject of grief. How do Martha, Sean, and Martha's mother work through their loss? Can you think of other movies that have tackled similar themes?
What is the film saying about the psychological need to find a cause or place blame to explain a tragedy?
Discuss the substance use in the film. Is it glamorized or self-destructive? How is it tied to grief in this story?
The film was written by a woman who suffered her own baby's death. How can writing our experiences provide catharsis and healing? What other outlets can be helpful to work through an emotional trauma?
Describe the traits of the different characters: What clues are you given to how their personalities developed? How does it help viewers understand why a character behaves the way they do -- and how does that help us predict how they'll react in a situation?
- In theaters: December 30, 2020
- On DVD or streaming: January 7, 2021
- Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn
- Director: Kornél Mundruczó
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Brothers and Sisters
- Run time: 126 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language, sexual content, graphic nudity and brief drug use
- Last updated: February 19, 2021
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