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 documentary isn't for kids. It's comprised of frank discussions of sex acts and violence, as well as clips from feature films that were rated R and NC-17. Sexual images (all simulated for fiction films, that is, not porn per se) show intercourse, rear entry sex, three-way sex, and masturbation (including comic images like Jason Biggs' encounter with the apple pie in American Pie and Tracey Ullman's with a water bottle in A Dirty Shame). Clips also include violent images (bloody, explosive, aggressive, as well as a few seconds of the "Columbine cafeteria tapes," which show no violence but allude to the event). Language (in interviews and film clips) includes references to genitals and sexual acts, as well as discussion of the f-word's uses.
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What's the story?
THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED considers the power and the irrationality of the MPAA ratings board. It approaches its subject from two directions at once. The first part features interviews with filmmakers, film critics, actors, academics, and former members of the ratings board, most expressing their mystification with the process. Most of the discussion focuses on the shifting distinction between R and NC-17 rated films, especially as this has to do with sex and language, as well as the sorts of imagery allowed. While almost any sort of violence (especially violence that is cartoonish and excessive) might be okay in an R-rated film, any sexual allusion (especially homosexual) raises red flags for the board. The other part of the film consists of private detective Becky Altringer's pursuit of the board members' identities. The movie includes some history of the system (going back to the 1930 Hays Code) and discussion of parameters for membership on the board (chosen by Jack Valenti, almost every one is what critic David Ansen calls "the mythical American parent, a convenient fiction"). The bulk of the interviews are comprised of colorful and instructive accounts of run-ins with board by artists such as John Waters, Kimberly Peirce (who made Boys Don't Cry), actor Maria Bello (a brief shot of her pubic hair almost made The Cooler an NC-17 movie), and director Michael Tucker (whose Iraq war documentary, Gunner Palace, shows U.S. troops using the f-word; he argued successfully against an initial R rating by saying, "You can't rate reality").
Is it any good?
This Film Is Not Yet Rated is intelligent, funny, and provocative. On one hand, it is a standard talking-heads documentary, with experts explaining the ratings system while seated before book shelves and fireplaces. (Tellingly, even ex-board members suggest that the route to decisions is unclear and inconsistent.) On the other hand, the film energizes and embodies the investigation in the form of Becky, the private detective hired to discover the identities of the ratings board members. She and "junior investigator" Lindsey Howell (daughter of Becky's partner Cheryl) sit in their car outside the ratings board screening room, looking for license plate numbers and following possible members to restaurants during their lunch hours. Extremely personable, the detectives do sometimes seem to be part of another, more Michael Moore-ish project, equally interesting, though not always cohering.
Some interviewees specifically point out absurdities in the system, as when Kevin Smith, who comically says the board's rating of his film Jersey Girl as an R probably resulted from their upset at a mention of masturbation by "Arwen the Elf" (Liv Tyler). As funny as some of these examples seem in this context, however, they do make the documentary's point that the board charged with protecting children is, according to Ansen, turning all viewers into children. This Film Is Not Yet Rated doesn't get into the subject of family film ratings (the much-discussed slippage among measures of what makes a film PG, PG-13, or R), but it makes a crucial, related point. Specifically, it traces the connections between ratings and studio interests. The ratings system, according to This Film, is less invested in measuring content or providing information for families than it is in serving corporations.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the functions of the MPAA ratings board. How does it serve different groups, including filmmakers/artists, studios/advertisers, and parents/viewers? How does its secrecy help it serve each of these groups differently? Does the ratings system constitute a form of censorship? How does the system affect profits, audience appeals, and awards? How are kids' interests affected by MPAA ratings? What changes have you noticed recently in the content parameters for films rated G, PG, and PG-13?