A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this documentary about elusive, mysterious writer J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) covers some parts of his life -- mainly his wartime experiences and his dalliances and marriages -- that may be too mature or intense for tweens and younger. Some historical footage filmed during the liberation of the Nazis' concentration camps includes shots of charred, piled-up bodies; there's also some frank discussion about the author's attraction to very young women (including teens). There's talk of drinking and some era-accurate smoking. Note: Additional footage was added to the film after our review was published; that footage has not been reviewed by our staff.
What's the story?
In 1951, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was published to great acclaim in the United States and abroad. It capped years of hard work by the writer, whose short story, "The Young Folks," was first published by Story in 1940, and who, though he broke into many other publications as well, was repeatedly rejected by the New Yorker (which he considered the best of the best), until a story was finally accepted in 1946. But within a few years of Catcher hitting the shelves, Salinger disappeared in Cornish, New Hampshire, for good, becoming almost as elusive as a unicorn. So who was J.D. Salinger? And why did he choose to disappear from most of the world? How did his stint as a World War II soldier influence his writing? And what about his many infatuations and marriages, most of which were to women far younger than himself? SALINGER explores these questions and more.
Is it any good?
There's no argument that J.D. Salinger is a fascinating, complex subject for a documentary. Any details about the elusive, reclusive writer of a book that has appealed to generations of teen and adult readers have always been a big coup. And on that front, director Shane Salerno delivers, offering interviews with members of Salinger's inner circle (many ultimately booted from it for perceived slights), who fill in the many blanks that have arisen since Catcher became a bestseller and he disappeared from public view. We learn about his indefatigable attempts to write and the brutal wartime experiences that may have shaped his world view. (It's compelling material, effectively enhanced by news footage from the war.) We hear from the women he loved -- almost every one of them much younger than Salinger when they met or got together -- who describe relationships that were caring, confusing, and crushing. (He met one of them -- who may have inspired the character of Esme in the writer's famous story "For Esmé -- with Love and Squalor" -- when she was 14 and unceremoniously dumped her years later, after taking her virginity.) And then there's the big reveal about more books that will purportedly be published starting in 2015.
If only Salerno, who has written many blockbusters himself, approached his material with a steady and light touch. But the soundtrack blares, pushing viewers to FEEL during key moments. Segments in which an actor, ostensibly playing Salinger, appears on a stage (with footage and pictures from Salinger's life projected on a screen behind him) or is filmed toiling up a hill that we are meant to believe is in Cornish, cheapen the experience. Better to have let the material speak for itself and to allow the gaps in what we know about Salinger to come to a crescendo, underlining what made him so maddening, so mysterious in the first place.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Salinger's reclusive ways. Were they born out of a need to distance himself from his fame and intrusive fans and watchers, or could it partially be a way to make himself even more esteemed?
Salinger appears to have been attracted to teenagers, even when he was old enough to be their father or even grandfather. Parents, ask your teens: How do these types of relationships break boundaries?
Do you think all documentaries are 100% factual? How can you tell? Is it the filmmaker's responsibility to tell nothing but the truth, or are some exceptions possible? Why or why not?
- In theaters: September 6, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: December 10, 2013
- Cast: Danny DeVito, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Philip Seymour Hoffman
- Director: Shane Salerno
- Studio: Weinstein Co.
- Genre: Documentary
- Run time: 120 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: disturbing war images, thematic elements and smoking
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.