Rebel in the Rye

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
Rebel in the Rye Movie Poster Image
Some violence and postwar trauma in whip-smart biopic.
  • PG-13
  • 2017
  • 106 minutes

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

Positive Messages

The movie doesn't have a specific moral or judge the characters' choices. If anything, its message is that some artists have to choose between their art and the things that make most people happy. Perhaps the most positive message is that it's possible to fend off the demons of PTSD creatively, not destructively.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Salinger essentially chooses fidelity to his art above all else, including his family. Whether that's negative, though, depends on your perspective. He's certainly not portrayed as a role model. Several characters earnestly provide him help and guidance.


Nongraphic war imagery; the horrors of a concentration camp are implied; a violent mugging is shown. It's bloodless, but the trauma of war is taken very seriously -- giving it quite a bit of impact.


A May-December romance is discussed. Sensual contact between young lovers; no nudity.


Curses of the time (mostly 1940s): a few "goddamns" and the like, "stupid."


Like his creation, Holden Caulfield, the character of Jerry Salinger rejects what he sees as materialistic "phonies." He turns his back on lucrative schemes to stay true to his art.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drinking, with some drunkenness, especially by a mentor figure and when Salinger self-medicates his PTSD. Smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Rebel in the Rye is a drama that shows a young, whip-smart J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) being put through the ringer of World War II. The combat is portrayed in a nongraphic way, but he sees comrades killed, including a dear friend. He also sees a concentration camp, and there's a mugging. Expect scenes of drinking/partying and smoking (common for the era); there's also a little language ("goddamn," etc.) and a few moments of mild sensuality. Ultimately, Salinger essentially turns his back on the world -- including his family -- to pursue his art, and the film looks deeply into what shapes an artist. And it may well inspire viewers, especially teens, to pick up Salinger's works.

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What's the story?

REBEL IN THE RYE follows famed American author J.D. Salinger from his youth as "Jerry" (Nicholas Hoult) in New York, through his service in World War II, to the difficult birth of one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye, and beyond. Young Jerry forges a bond with tough mentor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) and seems on his way to making his name as a writer when war breaks out. Jerry suffers an awful romantic reversal, and then witnesses the horrors of combat and concentration camps. He returns a changed man who must rediscover the very reasons he had to write in the first place -- a man who must learn how to find a kind of peace.

Is it any good?

This drama is one of the best-written films of 2017 and is Hoult's richest work yet. Spacey has won two Oscars, but here, none of the wires are visible as they are in his sly, somewhat meta House of Cards performance. He entirely inhabits Whit and is gifted with a real arc for his character. In a very strong supporting cast (including Victor Garber, Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutsch, and Lucy Boynton of Sing Street), it’s the wonderful Hope Davis who stands out as Salinger's mother. The scene in which she receives a copy of his novel is quietly moving.

But the real star is the script, adapted by first-time feature director Danny Strong from Kenneth Slawenski's book, J.D. Salinger: A Life. Strong won an Emmy for writing HBO's Game Change and penned the underrated final two Hunger Games movies. His Rebel skillfully lays in exposition, avoiding standard biopic traps by allowing us to experience hinge moments, rather than have them indicated to us. There are clever lines to burn, and the film will catch many off-guard with its depiction of the notoriously reclusive Salinger in his youth: a charming fellow of no small wit. Most importantly, the film tries to get between those churning gears within the head of an artist. It cannily realizes that Salinger's sensibilities -- and sensitivities -- made him particularly vulnerable to the trauma of war. It's excellent work, and a lesson in the writer's voice. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence shown in Rebel in the Rye. How does it compare to what you might see in an action/superhero movie? Which has more impact, and why?

  • How do you think Jerry changed after the war? Were his goals the same? His preoccupations? What happened that made him grow as a writer and get better at his craft?

  • When you write, how influenced are you by what you've experienced firsthand? 

  • If you've read Catcher in the Rye, what did you think of the editors' criticisms of Holden as a character? Did they "get" it? Do you relate to Holden?

Movie details

  • In theaters: September 8, 2017
  • On DVD or streaming: January 2, 2018
  • Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Hope Davis
  • Director: Danny Strong
  • Studio: IFC Films
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run time: 106 minutes
  • MPAA rating: PG-13
  • MPAA explanation: some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking
  • Last updated: September 20, 2019

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