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The Lady in the Van
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Lady in the Van is an adaptation of English playwright/author/actor Alan Bennett's diary, memoir, and play about his unusual friendship with Mary Shepherd, an elderly homeless woman who convinced him to let her park her ramshackle van in his London driveway ... for 15 years. Directed by Bennett's friend and longtime artistic collaborator, Nicholas Hytner, and starring Maggie Smith (who also played Mary in the play and TV versions of the story), the movie is an appealing tale of a unique inter-generational friendship. There are a couple of brief shots of a dead body (one bloody, one peaceful) and some subtle allusions to Alan's amorous late-night visits from younger men (though not even kissing is shown), as well as an uncharacteristic utterance of the expletive "f--king." Otherwise, this is a character study and relationship drama about how sometimes the unlikeliest people can change your life.
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What's the story?
THE LADY IN THE VAN is a film adaptation of English playwright and author Alan Bennett's (Alex Jennings) diary-turned-play about his unusual relationship with Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith), a homeless woman known for parking her van in his London neighborhood and who eventually parked it in his driveway, permanently, for the last 15 years of her life. Alan and Mary aren't exactly regular pals, but they have an understanding. Never once does he kick her to the curb; instead, he lets her use his lavatory and live out of her van on his property. While well-meaning neighbors stop by with occasional meals and treats for the surly Mary, it's Alan who deals with her on a daily basis -- and ultimately realizes there's so much more to her than meets the eye.
Is it any good?
Smith is a force of nature in her third professional outing as Mary Shepherd, the titular transient woman who literally parked herself in playwright Alan Bennett's life. In a role that you'd swear was written for her -- were it not for the fact that Shepherd did, in fact, exist -- Smith is gloriously curmudgeonly as "Mary," a woman too proud to see herself as homeless (her old van, of course, is her home). When a passerby calls her a "sodding beggar," she yells back that she's "self employed" and Alan is her "neighbor." Smith and Jennings' chemistry is fabulous as they banter and bicker. But she's at her best when she's being perfectly blunt. She isn't a romanticized, kind-hearted homeless woman who's willing to share her sage wisdom about a reversal of fortune; Mary is more likely to bark at someone than to thank them. So when she finally asks Alan to give her his hand, it's a moment of exquisite tenderness and connection between two individuals co-existing on the same property.
As Alan, Jennings plays two roles -- the Alan who lives and the Alan who writes. They dress differently and have distinct personalities, and Jennings is fabulous as both. Fellow British stage and screen veterans Frances de la Tour and Roger Allam appear as Alan's neighbors, who tolerate and occasionally look in on Mary -- but this film is really about Mary and Alan, who quietly observes her life, usually in contrast to that of his own aging mother, who lives in another part of England where he can't just walk out the door and see her. Smith and Jennings are a wonderful match, and The Lady in the Van is a quietly powerful testament to how sometimes it's the unlikeliest of people who make a huge impact on your life.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the fact that not too many movies deal with inter-generational friendships between adults. Can you think of movies other than The Lady in the Van that do feature older characters in a meaningful way?
Is Mary a role model? Why or why not? What about Alan?
Why is Alan the only one on his street to allow Mary to park there? Why didn't he boot her out? Do you think Alan cared about Mary -- and vice-versa?
Maggie Smith has played this role twice before; what do you think of her performance?
- In theaters: December 4, 2015
- On DVD or streaming: April 19, 2016
- Cast: Maggie Smith, Roger Allam, Alex Jennings
- Director: Nicholas Hytner
- Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Friendship
- Character Strengths: Compassion
- Run time: 104 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: a brief unsettling image
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