Sophie's Choice

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Sophie's Choice Movie Poster Image
Tragic post-WWII tale has violence, death, and cursing.
  • R
  • 1982
  • 150 minutes

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

Positive Messages

Illustrates the fact that in spite of great courage and perseverance, victims of war or other horrific circumstances may never fully survive. One's past inextricably affects one's future. Graphically portrays the inhumanity of Nazism. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

While efforts ultimately fail, movie shows how two very damaged people -- one who has been destroyed by tyranny, the other a victim of mental illness -- attempt to negotiate the world. Friendship and concern for others are promoted as highly desirable character traits. Nazi characters are uniformly evil.

Violence

Scenes depict the grim reality of Nazi concentration camps (smoke from the ovens; desperate people in cages screaming for their lives; children torn from parents' arms; menacing behavior of German officers). Conversation about the extermination of Jews. Sequences show domestic abuse: man terrorizing a woman with contempt, name-calling, and his physical intimidation. Deaths occur.

Sex

Passion and sexual desperation evident in multiple lovemaking scenes: kissing, embracing, undressing. German officer attempts to seduce a concentration camp inmate. No actual sexual intercourse or nudity.

Language

Frequent cursing and obscenities: "s--t," "f--k," "bastard," "c--ksucker," "goddamn." Enraged name-calling: "slut," "whore," "cracker." One use of a racial slur (the "N" word). Conversations about sexuality.

Consumerism

Spam, Rheingold beer.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters consume alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, champagne, whiskey) in multiple scenes. Some drunkenness and alcohol dependency explored. Mention of cocaine and amphetamine addictions.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Sophie's Choice is an intense drama set in New York just two years after the end of World War II. It's both a complex love story and an in-depth portrayal of a former concentration camp prisoner. Based on the lauded novel by William Styron, the movie features central characters who are either victims or perpetrators of volatile behavior, emotional outbursts, and desperate circumstances. Scenes of passion and joy play against scenes of abuse and torment. Viewers can expect graphic depictions of concentration camp life in flashback, including deaths, degradation, sexual menace, and cruelty to children. Language includes both obscenities and insults (e.g., "f--k," "s--t," "whore," "ass," "c--t," and one use of the "N" word). While there's no nudity, there are scenes of heightened sexual passion: kissing, embracing, undressing. Alcohol is consumed in numerous sequences, with some drunkenness and references to addiction, including cocaine and amphetamines. As heartbreaking as it is illuminative, this award-winning 1982 movie is noted for Meryl Streep's remarkable performance, as well as its unflinching look at the aftermath of Nazi carnage. 

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What's the story?

It's Brooklyn, 1947 in SOPHIE'S CHOICE. Stingo (Peter MacNichol), a fledgling Southern writer with ambition and talent, moves into a charming rooming house in this borough of New York City. His upstairs neighbors, Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep), a Catholic concentration camp survivor from Poland, and Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline), a brilliant Jewish Brooklyn-native scientist, are a passionate couple, warm and welcoming. However, even on the first day, Stingo is mortified when Nathan turns on Sophie in a rage, terrifying the fragile but utterly loyal woman. Still, a friendship flourishes. Wild, joyful moments alternate with frightening bursts of anger and abuse. Stingo never gets used to Nathan's volatile behavior, but he stays close, if only to protect the fragile Sophie with whom he's fallen desperately in love. Nathan saved her life, Sophie explains to Stingo, as if that should satisfy. It doesn't, and over time, as Stingo learns about Sophie's tragic wartime experience, her unspeakable "choice," and uncovers Nathan's fateful truth, the young writer becomes an almost-willing participant in the inevitable outcome.

Is it any good?

Meryl Streep gives an incomparable performance in this poignant, unforgettable tragedy about the dehumanizing nature of war and its lasting impact upon the innocents. Her pale skin and translucent eyes are windows into the soul of a woman who is trying to survive her past. Co-star Kevin Kline, in his first movie role, delivers a no-holds-barred performance that announces a decades-long presence as one of America's finest actors. Sophie's Choice is a demanding film, as demanding of its audience as it was on the creative people who made it. It insists on full attention: no eyes averted, no fast-forwarding through the ugly truths of war and mental illness. Slow at times, deliberate, the film focuses on the aftermath of crushing inhumanity and degradation. With a carefully crafted structure, revealing the backstory in small steps, and with an innocent narrator to bring its innocent audience along, the film succeeds in keeping the volatile present at the forefront of the story. Recommended, but only for mature teens and grown-ups.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about a narrator's role in movies and stories. Who is the narrator of Sophie's Choice? Why do you think the author chose to tell the tale from his point of view? In what ways does this narration help bring its audience (or reader) into the story?

  • Some critics and historians have noted that Meryl Streep as Sophie is one of the greatest screen performances of all time. What do you think makes a great performance? What kind of preparation do you think was necessary? Do you have a "passion" that you would be willing to pursue as Streep did and continues to do? How is such commitment one of life's most treasured accomplishments?

  • What was Sophie's choice? How does the character and her relationship with Nathan become clearer to you once you understand the awful results of her "choice"? 

  • Alcohol is consumed frequently in this film. How did drinking and drunkenness contribute to your understanding of the central characters' behavior? Did you notice that with the exception of one brief conversation, it's not openly discussed? Still, it impacts the movie; it shows how they used alcohol as a way to numb their feelings and unrest. Why is it dangerous to use alcohol for those purposes?

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