The Pretenders

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
The Pretenders Movie Poster Image
Franco's mature, French New Wave-inspired misfire.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 95 minutes

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A lot or a little?

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

Positive Messages

Perhaps a warning against getting involved in a love triangle -- or having too many sexual partners.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Characters are pretty self-centered and don't really contribute or do much outside of their own interests.


Minor character dies; dead body, some blood shown. Character who has AIDS vomits, suffers.


Characters have sex with more than one partner. Topless women. Naked bottoms. Many sex acts/sexual situations. Topless woman grinds on top of a man. Multiple scenes of a male-female couple having sex with the man behind the woman (in a bathroom stall, in bed). Couple has sex in a back alley. Character picks up prostitutes and has sex. Other references to prostitutes. One character puts his hand up a woman's dress. Lots of kissing.


Many uses of "f--k," "motherf----r," "s--t," "bulls--t," "a--hole," "whore," "f--got," "goddamn," "hell," "damn," "Jesus" (as an exclamation).


Ads for Newcastle Ale, Heineken.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Constant cigarette smoking (by college-age characters and older). Social drinking. Cocaine use. Bottle of pills on dresser.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Pretenders is a love-triangle story directed by James Franco that's set in the late 1970s and early '80s and was inspired by the classic movies of the French New Wave. Sexual material is very mature: Characters have multiple partners, there are several semi-graphic sex scenes, partial nudity includes breasts and bottoms, prostitutes are seen and referenced, and there's lots of kissing. Language includes uses of "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," and much more. Characters constantly smoke cigarettes, and social drinking and cocaine use are shown. While violence isn't frequent, a dead body with blood spatters is shown. The movie deals with some interesting things, but the characters never quite pop, and it's ultimately rather forgettable.

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What's the story?

In THE PRETENDERS, Terry (Jack Kilmer) is a young film student in 1979 who's obsessed with Jean-Luc Godard and the films of the French New Wave. At a showing of A Woman Is a Woman, Terry meets the beautiful Catherine (Jane Levy) but fails to get her phone number. He also meets photographer Phil (Shameik Moore), who witnessed Terry's failure and promises to help. In a few weeks, they find her, and Terry writes a short film for her to star in, while Phil also finds himself attracted to her and starts putting his own moves on her. A few years later, they meet again at an opening of Phil's work. When Terry becomes an item with actress Victoria (Juno Temple), it piques Catherine's interest in him. Then, in 1986, fate takes a twist when Phil falls ill and Catherine vanishes.

Is it any good?

James Franco's love triangle is clearly enamored of film history and the French New Wave, and that enthusiasm helps somewhat, but the characters never really come to life or connect with one another. The trio in The Pretenders is clearly inspired by the characters in Francois Truffaut's 1962 Jules and Jim. But as this film lacks that one's freshness and fine balance, the characters come across more like types than full-blooded characters. Not to mention that several melodramatic touches feel tacked-on, rather than organic extensions of the story. And smaller roles, filled by Temple, Brian Cox, Dennis Quaid, and Franco himself, end up as mere placeholders.

The movie tribute bits, especially the little dance number from Godard's Band of Outsiders, are fun, and Franco attempts a few arty shots here and there in homage to the freedom and energy of that 1960s movement. But as a female film student notes after a screening of Terry's film, the intellect is missing here, and The Pretenders ultimately isn't much more than an empty exercise. This, along with Franco's Zeroville, were both rescued after having been shelved, and both are in the spirit of the French New Wave. But Zeroville is a more reckless and sillier journey through movie history; it takes more risks and feels less stuck than this one. The Pretenders isn't terrible, but viewers would be better off checking out some early Godard and Truffaut.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how The Pretenders depicts sex. Is it based on trust? On love? On conquest? What values are imparted?

  • Is smoking intended to look cool here? Are there consequences for smoking? Why does that matter?

  • How is AIDS depicted? What is the history of that disease, and how has the thinking on it changed since the time when the movie takes place?

  • What was the French New Wave, and how is this movie inspired by it?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love arty films

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