The Better Angels

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Better Angels Movie Poster Image
Contemplative but pretentious drama about Lincoln's boyhood.
  • PG
  • 2014
  • 95 minutes

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A lot or a little?

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

Positive Messages

Subtle, spiritual messages about how Lincoln's early life was shaped by his loving mother (who died young) and his stern, hardworking father. Suggests that Lincoln's early experiences seeing a chain gang, playing in the fields with his mother, and dealing with his father's fatherly justice influenced him into becoming an honorable, just man.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lincoln's father is a dedicated worker and a stern but loving parent who wants Abraham and his sister to have a strong work ethic, a stepmother after their mother dies, and a bright future.

Violence

Thomas Lincoln punishes Abraham in a way that was customary for the time: by spanking/hitting him with a switch. Abraham's mother, as well as two relatives, die from milk poisoning. Mrs. Lincoln's demise may be upsetting to see: she vomits, writhes, and convulses before dying. The narrator says that Sarah Lincoln (Abraham's sister) also went on to die young -- during childbirth.

Sex

Lincoln's father and his new wife lie in bed together, but it's not sexual.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some era-accurate smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Better Angels is a Terrence Malick-ish drama about a young Abraham Lincoln. Although it's historically accurate about details of young Lincoln's life, the movie is more of a poetic look at how Lincoln's boyhood was forever changed by the death of his beloved mother and the arrival of his stepmother. In addition to a bit of era-accurate smoking, there's some corporal punishment, as Mr. Lincoln punishes his children by spanking them with a switch. And Lincoln witnesses a chain gang, but the movie itself isn't that violent. It is, however, likely a bit too contemplative and lyrical to appeal to younger viewers.

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What's the story?

THE BETTER ANGELS is a black-and-white drama depicting a time in President Abraham Lincoln's boyhood when he lived in his Indiana log cabin with his parents, older cousin, and sister. During this time, Lincoln's loving mother (Brit Marling) dies of milk poisoning; afterward, his stern-but-fair father, Thomas Lincoln (Jason Clarke), leaves for a period, returning with a new wife -- a widow with two children. Lincoln's stepmother (Diane Kruger) works hard to restore order and happiness to Abraham and his sister Sarah's home.

Is it any good?

Director AJ Edwards' debut feature is technically memorable, particularly thanks to cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd. But the film itself -- despite its compelling subject matter of Lincoln's early years -- doesn't rise above much more than a feature-length Terrence Malick tribute. (If you want to be even less charitable, the voice-over heavy, lyrical story is like a film student's assignment to make something in the signature style of his favorite director.) Malick isn't just a mentor of Edwards' but is also a producer (and formerly attached director) of The Better Angels, so it's not surprising that the movie bears such a strong resemblance to Malick's work.

The nearly dialogue-free performances are all nuanced and expressive  -- with Clarke, Marling, and Kruger doing a lovely job with their roles. Young Abe actor Braydon Denney is sweet and reflective and brings his eyes to heaven throughout the film. The story covers two of the most important events in Lincoln's young life -- his mother's death and the arrival of his stepmother -- and both are captured with a poignant intimacy. Lincoln (or Malick) aficionados will be attracted to the movie, but anyone else might be a tad bored with the poetic proceedings that, while beautiful, could also be perceived as pretentious and even boring.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the enduring fascination with president Lincoln. How does The Better Angels compare to other movies about the 16th president? Which do you think are the most accurate? Why might filmmakers tweak actual events?

  • Discuss the way that The Better Angels relies on voice overs instead of dialogue. Does this make the story harder to follow?

  • Some critics have complained that the movie goes beyond being an homage to director Terrence Malick and just seems like a copycat. If you're familiar with Malick's signature style, do you agree?

Movie details

Themes & Topics

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For kids who love famous folks

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