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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Rain Man is a 1988 movie in which a selfish and greedy sports-car salesman (played by Tom Cruise) discovers, in the wake of his father's death, that he has a brother he never knew he had, a brother who is an autistic savant (played by Dustin Hoffman). This movie contains some strong language, including frequent use of "f--k," and two instances of Cruise's character calling Hoffman's character "retarded" and "f--kin' retarded." There are some intense scenes in which Raymond becomes distressed, prone to horrific screams and near-violent outbursts. There's a scene where sex is insinuated (moaning and movement under the sheets) and a brief glimpse of a breast. Prostitution is alluded to. Cruise's character smokes cigarettes. This movie deals with mental health issues, though it requires little understanding of these issues on the part of a young viewer; characters possess the same ignorance and biases a child is likely to have.
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What's the story?
When yuppie misanthrope Charlie Babbit's father dies at the start of RAIN MAN, he leaves most of his fortune to his autistic, institutionalized son Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), the brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) never knew he had. Charlie kidnaps Raymond from a mental institution, and they travel across the country in search of a new home and a new intimacy. Exquisitely photographed by John Seale, the first half of the film is an austere road movie, with the American West as a backdrop and Cruise and Hoffman playing off one another like old pros. Things become more complex when Charlie realizes that long-forgotten events from his childhood are locked inside Raymond's photographic memory.
Is it any good?
This is a quiet, understated gem of a film, one that richly rewards the patient viewer with an unforgettable emotional experience. Many films that depict those with mental or physical disabilities exploit the character's handicap for quick-fix audience sympathy. Rain Man never indulges in this. Despite it being responsible for autism becoming part of the common vernacular, Rain Man does not dwell on the affliction's parlor-trick-like aspects.
Instead, we follow the ups and downs of Raymond's relationship with Charlie and with the world at large. Each success is followed by a setback, until we begin to question how we define "success." Charlie longs for Raymond to change but gradually, subtly, changes the terms with which he loves him. The film refuses to take the easy way out by demonizing institutions of mental health. In the end, we are left to wonder what is best for Raymond and whether or not Charlie is any less emotionally isolated than his brother.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about issues surrounding mental health in Rain Man and in general. Should we expect people who have trouble communicating with others to adjust or accept mentally ill people as they are? Are mentally ill people sick and in need of a cure? Are the doctors at the mental hospital as compassionate and well-meaning as Charlie?
In the time since this movie was released, what has changed in society's understanding of mental health and mental illness? If this movie were released today, how do you think it would be different?
When this movie was released, Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. What do you think would be the challenges for an actor playing someone who is an autistic savant? What kind of research do you think would go into learning and rehearsing for this role?
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