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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Sun Dogs is a movie about a peculiar but compelling young man as he searches for his place in the world. Jennifer Morrison (a leading actor in the TV series Once Upon a Time, directing her first feature-length film) has assembled a strong cast to tell this unconventional tale about someone with considerable limitations who nonetheless makes an impact in others' lives. Action includes some fantasy sequences with Ned in wartime, on a battlefield with gunfire and explosions in the background. The hero intervenes when he believes a girl is in danger, taking the assailant down. Expect profanity throughout, including "ass," "son of a bitch," "damn," "get in your pants," "Jesus Christ," "virgin," "hell," "retard," and one "f--k." It's implied that a young woman is paid for sex. There's occasional social drinking but no drunkenness. While there are many subtly comic moments, and some amusing characterizations, there are also some scenes that deal with death and sadness. The movie tells the story of ordinary Americans struggling to find their way in a chaotic world -- where terror and terrorists live somewhere just beyond their peripheral vision -- and the complex relationships they create to find meaning. Fine for teens and as a shared family experience.
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What's the story?
SUN DOGS is set three years after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Ned Chipley (Michael Angarano), on the verge of manhood, sincerely wants to make America safe from the terrorists he believes still lie in wait to attack his country. With the help of his mom, Rose (Allison Janney), and her longtime partner, Bob (Ed O'Neill), Ned has been "training" in preparation for his fourth visit to a Marine Recruiting Office to volunteer. While his earlier efforts have failed, this time he meets with a compassionate recruiter, Master Sgt. Jenkins (Xzibit). Recognizing that Ned's mental limitations preclude him from becoming a Marine, Jenkins compassionately tries to salvage the young man's feelings and declares him a "Sun Dog," a special operative. Giving Ned a deck of cards displaying the 52 most wanted Al Qaeda terrorists, he tells the new "Sun Dog" to be on the lookout. It's exactly the assignment Ned has hoped for. Now on a mission, he meets and partners up with Tally (Melissa Benoist), a down-and-out young woman whose usual bleak view of the world is temporarily lifted. Ned's efforts, however misguided they may turn out to be, give him purpose and lead both Tally and his family into an adventure that takes both comic and heartbreaking turns.
Is it any good?
Jennifer Morrison's initial feature direction is a delicate movie, honest within the constraints of its fantastical premise. It focuses on relationships, compassion, and every individual's right to live a life of purpose. Sun Dogs is gentle, heartfelt, and skilled. Working with notable actors, she brings nuance and grace to what, in lesser hands, might have been stereotypes of America's struggling working class. Allison Janney, as always, is wonderful; Ed O'Neill in a multidimensional performance has never been better. It's an unlikely, sweet story and the production (music, art direction, editing, script) are all first-rate. Michael Angarano delivers as Ned, a challenging role. He brings magic into the lives of everyone around him just as the filmmakers have attempted to bring that magic to the screen, entrusting that their audience will believe in Ned and love him just the way he is.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about movies like Sun Dogs that center on people with special needs or disabilities. Are your attitudes about such people changed and/or enriched by their stories? In what ways? Why is it important for the filmmaking community to take responsibility for honest and accurate portrayals?
Think about the significance of Tally's reading -- both the books and the fact that, despite her circumstances, she kept reading. Why did the creative team include those scenes? What did it tell you about Tally? How did it prepare you for the resolution of Tally's story?
Movies often show all sorts of creative "families." How did Ned collect a non-nuclear family? Who were its members? In an ever-changing world, why is it often essential for individuals to create their own nontraditional families?
How did you feel about the ending of this movie? Was it satisfying? Believable? Had Ned changed from the beginning of the story? If your answer is yes, how did he change? If your answer is no, what does it tell you about Ned's future?
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