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The Stanford Prison Experiment
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Stanford Prison Experiment is a drama based on a famous real-life 1971 psychological experiment in which college students took on the roles of either prison guards or prisoners. The material is very strong, with psychological abuse, fighting, beating with nightsticks, screaming panic attacks, and references to rape. (It might have actually qualified as a "torture" movie if not for the fact that it's not "real.") Language is also strong, with many uses of "f--k," "s--t," and more. Prisoners are forced to pretend to have sex, and there are sexual references. Cigarette smoking is prevalent, and there are references to drinking and drugs. The story of the experiment is standard in most psychology textbooks today, and it serves as a fascinating cautionary tale, as well as a look at our inner workings and the way that power can influence us. Adults and older teens with strong stomachs will likely have a lot to talk about.
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What's the story?
In August 1971, at Stanford University, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) prepares for a most unusual kind of psychological experiment. He recruits several male students to portray either prisoners or guards in a mock prison situation (a coin toss decides their role). A hallway and several offices are prepared as cells. The guards quickly adapt to their roles of authority -- aided by their uniforms, nightsticks, and sunglasses -- while the prisoners, wearing numbered gowns and stocking caps, become submissive. The experiment is planned to last two weeks, but it's only a matter of days before things escalate beyond expectations, and the guards start subjecting prisoners to more extreme methods of psychological torture.
Is it any good?
This film is a fascinating, revealing, upsetting experience. A movie about the real-life 1971 Stanford prison experiment could have been sadistic and unwatchable, but director Kyle Patrick Alvarez's clinical approach focuses on realism and psychological drama rather than on thrills. Alvarez doesn't try to professionally polish the prison setting; instead, it has a functional, homemade look that makes it feel more immediate. The way the characters wear their hair and clothes -- and they way they carry themselves -- contributes to what feels like an authentic period piece.
The ensemble performances are strong, with the actors uniformly selling the horrors of the grim material, especially former child actor Michael Angarano, who, for his guard role, decides to adopt a scary southern accent (like Strother Martin's in Cool Hand Luke). Crudup is also terrific, balancing the scholarly importance of his study with its moral conundrums, as is Nelsan Ellis as a former real-life prisoner who consults.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about The Stanford Prison Experiment's violence. How much actual violence is shown, and how much is in the form of threats or power struggles? What's the effect on the audience? What's the impact of media violence on kids?
What happens in the experiment? Why do the guards become so abusive and the prisoners so submissive? What does the experiment reveal about human nature/behavior?
In the beginning, most of the students say that they would choose to be a prisoner. Why is this? Would you choose to be a prisoner or a guard?
Does this experiment apply to bullies? Is the abuse of authority and power similar or different?
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