Slums of Beverly Hills

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Slums of Beverly Hills Movie Poster Image
Dark comedy about family dysfunction; sex, drugs, cursing.
  • R
  • 1998
  • 91 minutes

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A lot or a little?

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

Positive Messages

The movie is centered on a family whose father moves his kids from cheap apartment to cheap apartment within the Beverly Hills city limits so his kids can go to school there; this father then lies to his wealthy older brother whose daughter has just gotten out of rehab, telling him that she's going to live with the family so she can go to nursing school in order to scam the wealthy older brother into paying for a nicer place to live. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Teens experiment with sexual foreplay, buy, sell, and smoke marijuana, and wear t-shirts with Charles Manson's face on them. The father lives in the cheapest apartments he can find within the Beverly Hills city limits and skips out on rent when he can no longer make the payments. Later, he gropes the breast of his niece, who has just gotten out of rehab, is struggling with prescription drug addiction, and is pregnant and hasn't told the father. 

Violence

The lead character observes her father grope and place his hand down the blouse of his niece, touching her breast. Lead character stabs her uncle in the thigh with a fork, causing him to limp with a bloody bandage in a later scene. This is in imitation of her father, who often tells the family the story of when he caught a kitchen employee who was robbing steaks from the restaurant the father owned by stabbing the man in the thigh with a fork and stabbing steak instead; the father then punched out the employee. A teen boy neighbor mentions to the lead character that they are close to where one of the Manson Family murders took place, then rattles off the names of some of the murder victims. 

Sex

Implied sex in a car between a teen girl and boy. An extended scene in which the lead character is on her back on the bathroom floor masturbating with a vibrator for the first time --  comically exaggerated sexual arousal shown on her face and in the triumphant background music. She gets the vibrator from her older cousin who has just moved in with them; they play a game of hot potato with the vibrator before the lead character uses it as a microphone before her father walks in, and she doesn't know how to turn it off. Female nudity -- breasts. A woman stumbling down a dark road trying to hitchhike flashes her breasts at a trucker. A teen girl allows her teen boy neighbor to place his hands on her breasts. Exposed breasts when she is in a plastic surgeon's office seeking to get a breast reduction. 

Language

Regular use of profanity, including "f--k." In a restaurant, the father tries to get the attention of an African-American server by addressing him loudly as "Jackson." Variations on "s--t." "Goddamn." "Piss." "For Christ's sake." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A teen boy neighbor sells pot; in the midst of nearly getting caught by the police while in a parking lot, he has the lead character hide his stash in her panties. He sells pot to the lead character's older brother, who is shown smoking out of a giant bong in the kitchen. Their older cousin, who has just gotten out of rehab due to addiction to prescription drugs, at times appears drugged, and is passed out from an overdose in one scene. Cigarette smoking. Wine drinking. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Slums of Beverly Hills is a 1998 coming-of-age dark comedy. The comedy takes a dark turn when the lead character spies on her father groping the breast of her older cousin. Teen characters experiment with sex, including an extended masturbation scene with a vibrator, a teen girl allowing a teen neighbor boy she has just met to put his hands on her exposed breasts. A woman stumbling down a dark road trying to hitchhike flashes her breasts at a trucker. The lead character, at age 14, meets with a plastic surgeon to discuss breast reduction surgery. Teens sell, buy, and smoke pot. Their new neighbor, a teen boy, sells pot and only wears a t-shirt with a picture of Charles Manson on it. The family relocates from cheap apartment to cheap apartment every few months, stiffing the landlord when they can no longer pay rent; evidence of how dumpy one of the apartments is gets proven by the young boy in the family pulling out a dead cat from the oven. Lots of profanity, including "f--k." The film centers on a very dysfunctional family in 1976 Southern California, and of a young teen girl trying to accept herself as she is and, ultimately, her family as they are; older teens and adults who also came from families that weren't exactly Leave it to Beaver could find common ground with their own experiences, and use this as an opportunity to discuss the nature of "family" -- how it's often perceived in TV and movies, and how reality presents a wide array of definitions of that term. 

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What's the story?

It's the summer of 1976, and Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne) is a young teenager embarrassed by both her body and her family in SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS. As if pubescent changes weren't difficult enough, her family lives a nomadic life, renting out "dingbats" (aka "rundown apartments") month-to-month that are within the city limits of Beverly Hills -- her father Murray's (Alan Arkin) idea, so Vivian and her two brothers can attend the schools there. But the family's financial situation changes for the better when Vivian's older cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) breaks out of a rehab clinic, pregnant and with nowhere to go. Murray concocts a scheme in which Murray's wealthy brother Mickey (Carl Reiner) pays to put Murray's family and Rita in a nice apartment, in exchange for taking care of Rita and under the pretense that she will be attending nursing school. Meanwhile, Murray is trying to date an older woman who only wants companionship and nothing physical, Vivian's older brother is auditioning for a musical, and her younger brother is desperate for any display of affection. On top of all this, Vivian has begun experimenting with sex, and starts hanging out with her neighbor Eliot (Kevin Corrigan), a Charles Manson-obsessed teen who makes money selling pot. This tenuous grasp on stability begins to crumble when the father of Rita's child refuses to see her, causing her to overdose on prescription drugs right when Mickey calls to say he's coming to visit. As she considers making a profound change to her appearance, Vivian must find a way to not only accept herself for who she is, but also accept her dysfunctional family for what they are. 

Is it any good?

This movie succeeds not only as a dark comedy, but also as an accurate depiction of a time of crisis and uncertainty. And while it's somewhat dated to a time when memoirs and autobiographical fiction centered on troubled childhoods were all the rage, the story itself and the comedy within have managed to hold up. Also, refreshingly, the comedy is driven by the characters and not by the cheap nostalgia of tacky butterfly lapels and disco classics. Despite their flaws and abrasiveness, you want the Abramowitz family to succeed, somehow. You want all of them to somehow get it together, even as it starts to become obvious that some of them never will. This is due to Tamara Jenkins' superb directing and writing that never loses sight of the story, as well as the wonderful acting, especially Alan Arkin, who is so often the catalyst of the comedy and tragedy of the story as the father desperately trying to provide some semblance of a better life for his kids as his personal and financial life continues to disintegrate.

Given the mature content, Slums of Beverly Hills is best for older teens and parents.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about coming-of-age movies. How is Slums of Beverly Hills similar to and different from other movies of this genre? 

  • Many of the characters in this movie are unpleasant, abrasive, and obnoxious. What are some of the ways in which flawed characters provide the humor for a comedy such as this one? Should characters be likeable or relatable in order for a movie to be enjoyable? Why or why not? 

  • How did this movie address topics such as: teen body image, sexual experimentation, drug use, growing up poor while surrounded by wealth? 

Movie details

For kids who love coming-of-age tales

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