A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
The clearest message is a simple one: "War is hell." It's conveyed less by focusing on the brutality of combat than on the aftereffects for survivors. There is war violence, but it's not glamorized. Fidelity to comrades and to a solemn promise are emphasized.
Positive Role Models
Bartle makes extremely iffy but also understandable choices, making him an everyman stuck in a terrible situation. His human response to it -- and the eventual way he comes around to the truth -- sets a realistic example. One soldier's mother shows dogged determination in seeking the real story of what happened to her son.
Violence & Scariness
Most of the war violence isn't particularly graphic -- shootings, shellings, etc. But two scenes up the intensity level: A soldier physically accosts his mother, and a key character is horribly mutilated and killed -- the result of cruel torture; his body briefly but memorably shown. Two suicide attempts, one successful. Also plenty of fear, tension, peril.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A couple of non-intense/graphic sexual situations. No nudity.
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Pervasive profanity, including many uses of "f--k" and its variants, plus "s--t," "ass," "goddamn," "bitch," etc. "Hajji" used as a racial epithet.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Drinking to excess as a form of self-medication. Ambiguous possible drug use (shown quickly); soldier smoking.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Yellow Birds is a mature drama that focuses on young soldier Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), who's haunted by his service in Iraq and memories of his best friend there, Murph (Tye Sheridan). It takes a complex view of war and the aftermath for those involved. While there's plenty of tension and peril, most of the war violence isn't overly graphic, aside from a couple of incidents that definitely up the intensity level. One involves a soldier who physically accosts his own mother, and one involves the disturbingly mutilated corpse of a key character, who appears to have been tortured to death. There's also a little bit of sex and substance-related content, including a soldier who self-medicates by drinking lots of beer. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails.
Is It Any Good?
This adaptation of Kevin Powers' acclaimed Iraq War novel has poetic moments and strong acting, but also a strange lack of tension. Director Alexandre Moors finds beauty in strange places in The Yellow Birds, such as a stretch of lush green in the desert or a moment of connection at a barracks party. He elicits centered performances from his cast, including strong support by Aniston as a desperate mother, Collette as an exasperated one, and Huston as a veteran leader who defies the easy dramatic classifications of "good" and "bad." And the two leads are outstanding. Sheridan (Mud, Joe, Ready Player One) is a soulful actor who deftly conveys Murph's naïveté and eventual crisis. He's instantly sympathetic. Ehrenreich, who has swung hard from impressive work (Hail, Caesar) to less so (Solo: A Star Wars Story) is focused and settled as the damaged young man at the story's center. His Bartle is a true everyman -- without direction, not a star soldier, not a failure. The difference in him before and after he reaches his personal breaking point is clear; the sometimes-poetic narration seems to come from somewhere that didn't exist until it was unearthed by his experiences.
That said, there's a kind of emotional and dramatic inevitability to the unraveling of the central mystery that lowers the film's stakes. This may be due to the narrative's time-jumping, which sometimes works and sometimes feels forced. And the choices involved in the central incident aren't easy to understand. They feel overly rushed and easy on screen, so we don't feel the fear or horror that key incident requires. The Yellow Birds' lack of dramatic tension may stem from a filmmaking choice to focus on the characters, a streamlining of the book's plot and relationships, or insufficient shaping in the editing room. Whatever the cause, the unfortunate result is a lower level of engagement than this otherwise well-made drama deserves.
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