A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this stirring drama about friendship and the beauty of music depicts mental illness in a realistic light, neither overdramatizing nor underemphasizing it. Scenes that take place in L.A.'s gritty areas include some skirmishes and shots of drug use, and a dead body is found. The authentic feel of those scenes (which feature real-life Skid Row regulars) could be upsetting for sensitive viewers. But aside from that and some harsh language (including sparing use of "f--k"), the movie is age appropriate for teens -- there's no sex or blatant product placement.
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What's the story?
Facing a deadline, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) chances upon the story of his life when he hears the flawed-but-mesmerizing strains of a man playing a battered violin in a scruffy city park. The musician is Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), who's homeless, but not a grifter or a busker -- he's a former Julliard student who was felled by mental illness but is somehow made whole by playing classical music. And though Steve first approaches Nathaniel with journalistic objectivity, he gradually gets enmeshed in his subject's life, offering him finer musical instruments and wheedling him into an apartment. Nathaniel becomes a part of Steve's life, too, but it's not an easy fit on either end. Still, somehow they find the perfect pitch for their unusual friendship to play out.
Is it any good?
The Soloist manages to avoid the dumbing down that often happens when a true story is made into a movie; a few changes add cinematic contours to the storyline, but the ending isn't pat or contrived. It also steers clear of "message movie" heavy handedness (though only just), even though it has plenty to say about mental illness and L.A.'s shocking homeless problem. The movie is a triumph for British director Joe Wright, who, though prone to visual flourishes that border on ostentation, knows when to allow a scene to be quiet and when to let it scream. There's a moment in which Steve crouches, listening to Nathaniel play a proper cello for the first time in years; another filmmaker might have amped up the tension, but Wright goes for mindfulness, allowing the music to speak for itself. In The Soloist, its impact is loud and oh-so-clear.
We've seen Los Angeles glamorous (Laurel Canyon), gang-infested (Boyz in the Hood), and ambitious (The Player). We've seen it dangerous (The Usual Suspects), mournful (City of Angels), romantic (L.A. Story), historic (L.A. Confidential), rich, complicated and gritty (Crash). But until THE SOLOIST, we've never seen it truly soulful. Finally, L.A. breaks free of Hollywood clichés to emerge fully realized, full of life and contradictions. Having top-rate actors helps: Downey Jr. tamps down the brilliant irascibility that so often permeates his performances. Here, he's muted (in a good way),even when he's frustrated, scared, or enraged. And Foxx is mesmerizing; as he did in Ray, he displays both fine musicianship and a light acting touch that makes for a potent combination.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what the film is trying to say. Why do you think the filmmaker lingered on the gritty Skid Row scenes? Is it to shock or to educate? Were you aware of the massive homeless problem L.A. faces?
How is this movie different from many other films set in L.A.?
Families can also discuss Steve and Nathaniel’s relationship. At what point do they become friends, and why?
The movie is based on a true story -- how accurate do you think it is? Why might filmmakers decide to change some details in making a movie?
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.