Sand Castle

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Sand Castle Movie Poster Image
Humanistic look at Iraq war; violent battles, cursing.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 113 minutes

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

Positive Messages

Shows negative impact and random brutality of war on both the troops and those they are trying to help. Clearly demonstrates the intense brotherhood that develops between the soldiers. Depicts the complex American-Iraqi relationships on a personal level.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Leading character, shallow and selfish at film's opening, finds his courage, loyalty, and commitment to those with whom he serves. His team members all exhibit exemplary responsibility for one another. Humanizes the Iraqi villagers. Ethnic diversity throughout. No females.


Battle scenes are violent and bloody, with fatalities. Gunfire, explosions, snipers. Innocents are killed. An Iraqi teacher is shown after being hanged and burned. A hero purposefully smashes his hand in a car door.


Frequent swearing and obscenities: "f--k" in many forms, "s--t," "d--k," "p---y," "goddamn," "asshole," "balls."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Soldiers smoke. When off-duty, soldiers drink alcohol -- whiskey and beer.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Sand Castle, a Netflix Original Movie, is centered upon one small-scale struggle in the early years of the American-Iraqi conflict, a microcosm of the devastating war. A team of American soldiers is assigned the task of repairing a pumping station that provides water to a rural village. Enemy forces want to prevent the action. From the point of view of the leading character -- screenwriter Chris Roessner, a veteran of the Iraq war, is telling his own story -- audiences will get an intimate look at the critical relationships formed and attacks that occurred. Though actual battle footage is limited, it's brutal. Snipers, explosions, hand-to-hand combat, and fatalities occur. One disturbing image shows a local villager hanging, burned, in the center of town. Language is harsh throughout -- obscenities and swearing (i.e., "f--k," "s--t," "asshole," "p---y"). Soldiers celebrate a relatively peaceful evening by drinking whiskey and beer, getting drunk; many of the group smoke cigarettes and cigars; a soldier takes pills for pain. Suspenseful and violent, this film is not for kids.

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What's the story?

Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult) has made a stunningly ill-timed decision in SAND CASTLE. Assured that enlisting in the Army will eventually provide him with a college education, Ocre joins up. The month, July. The year, 2001. In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, however, the United States no longer retains a "peacetime" army, and Matt Ocre finds himself a solider at war. Even a purposeful accident -- he smashes his own arm with a car door -- doesn't prevent his deployment. Once in Iraq, Matt's small unit is sent to repair a pumping station damaged by the fighting. The station is the only source of water for an isolated village. Its people are desperate. Understaffed, the army calls upon the villagers to help with the almost-impossible task. No one answers the call -- they're afraid for their lives. Any help given to the Americans will be seen as aiding the enemy. The young soldiers do their best, but it isn't nearly enough. It's only when a courageous teacher assembles a group of scared but willing townspeople that real progress begins. But, as the saying goes, "no good deed goes unpunished." The enemy attacks... first their own people, then a battle in earnest with the American troops. 

Is it any good?

Deftly connecting American soldiers with the Iraqi citizens in their midst, along with relationships and battles that feel very real, make this well-acted and directed war movie a cut above. It helps that the audience is carried into the story and along Sand Castle's suspenseful journey by a reluctant young soldier who did not sign up for the events he confronted. As his eyes open to the enormous cost of war -- most specifically in human terms -- so do ours. The film avoids cliches, stereotypes, and forced in-fighting amongst the unit. The affecting war footage, brutal treatment of civilians as well as soldiers, and language are not suitable for kids. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about one unique facet of Sand Castle as a war drama. Why do you think the filmmakers placed so much emphasis on the soldiers' interactions with the villagers? How did both the soldiers' and the villagers' attitudes toward each other evolve over the course of the story?

  • What is the meaning of the word "irony?" What was ironic about the date -- July 2001 -- when Private Matt Ocre decided to join the Army to earn funds for a college education? How did his early action (the car door incident) reflect his feelings about his ill-timed decision? By the end of the movie, do you think his perspective had changed? Why?

  • In the mid-20th century, after World Wars I and II, movies about war contained no swearing or obscenities. The Hays Code (a set of restrictive "guidelines") did not allow it. Do you think such language is essential to the telling of stories like this one? Do you think it reflects reality? What other stories or events depicted on film might call for profanity?

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