Take the Kids, and Don’t Feel Guilty

  1. This is a spin-0ff of the PG-13 thread (which I can't find right now). It came from The New York Times.

    By A. O. SCOTT
    Published: January 11, 2008
    Over the last few years, in the course of many parent conferences and elementary-school curriculum nights, I’ve become familiar with the concept of the “just-right book.” This, my children’s teachers patiently explain, is a book that is perfectly suited to a child’s reading ability: neither too easy, in which case he or she will grow bored, nor too difficult, which risks frustration and confusion.

    I defer to the pedagogical expertise of the professionals, but something in me nonetheless rebels against the idea that the books children choose should always be safely within their developmental comfort zone. There is pleasure to be found in bewilderment, in the struggle to make sense of what is just above your head, and there is wisdom as well. For similar reasons, while I am happy (or at least willing) to take my children to the latest animated or tweener-star-driven “family” movies — with their singing chipmunks and chirpy Loch Ness Monsters — we gravitate more and more toward age- inappropriate fare, exploring the grown-up realms of PG-13 and even, sometimes, R.

    Is this just wrong? Maybe. I blanch when I see very young children at “American Gangster.” But I also roll my eyes when friends choose to interpret the PG-13 rating as a literal injunction rather than an attempt by the movie industry to protect itself from complainers.
    We all know what’s right for our own children, and I’m not going to advise anyone to subject young eyeballs to the cruelty of “There Will Be Blood” (which isn’t, until the very end, all that bloody) or the menace of “No Country for Old Men.” But there are a lot of interesting movies to see with children right now, including many that are not marketed that way.
    On Christmas, my annual busman’s holiday, I took my daughter to see “Enchanted,” a just-right movie for her if ever there was one. Its blend of satire and sweetness, princessy romance and feminist pluck was expertly calibrated to satisfy a third-grade girl. Which was just the problem. At the end, as is my custom (I have to get my insights from somewhere), I asked her what she thought. “It was good,” she said. “But I felt like I knew what was going to happen the whole time.” That’s true of a lot of movies, maybe most of them. But isn’t it more fun — if also perhaps more risky — not to know, to be apprehensive and attentive and maybe a little uncertain?
    That’s the kind of movie I like, and I don’t think that’s just a matter of grown-up taste. On the contrary. The mind of a child is made for learning, and even movies that have no explicit didactic intention can teach a lot. An adult companion is helpful to provide explanations.
    Which is what may make some parents uncomfortable: not the bad stuff their sons and daughters will see, but the difficult stuff they may find themselves asked to explain. The same Christmas Day, my son, who is in sixth grade, went to see “Charlie Wilson’s War” with his mother and other family members. When he came back he had some hard questions, but they had nothing to do with naked congressmen in hot tubs or cocaine or extramarital dalliances, all of which feature prominently in that movie. “Why did the Russians invade Afghanistan in the first place?” he wanted to know.
    And if you are prepared to tackle that — I could have used a little help, frankly — then by all means take a curious child with an interest in spycraft and skulduggery to see “Charlie Wilson’s War.” It’s appealing in part because it’s a grown-up movie of a kind that used to be more common. It’s brisk, funny and frank about sex and politics, demonstrating the ease and worldliness that are among the most fascinating and mysterious features of adulthood. More so, I suspect, than the nudity, smoking and swearing that are also part of Charlie Wilson’s world.
    Like “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is rated R, in this case for geysers of arterial blood rather than for disrobed flesh or untamed language. It is a scary, brutal, horrifying film — also a musical, by the way — and two-thirds of the way through it my son turned to me and said, “I’m loving this.” And why wouldn’t he?
    The music, though not his usual genre, got into his head and under his skin, and he recognized most of the stars from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Harry Potter” movies. There were Severus Snape and Bellatrix Lestrange (Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham-Carter) locked in a revenger’s tragedy with Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). And there was the French guy from “Talledega Nights,” Sacha Baron Cohen, also known as Borat. (Yes, he’s seen that too. Terrible, I know. I wish it had been around when I was his age.)
    Those familiar pop-cultural faces were his point of entry into a story that was a good deal stranger and darker than most musicals. He was a bit rattled, but also fascinated. “It’s one of the best movies of the year,” he said. Regular readers will know I share his judgment.
    But children, more than critics, are receptive to anything that doesn’t bore them. Mine were enchanted by “Persepolis,” for instance, which is after all the story of a rebellious young girl contending with unjust authority. It’s not so different from “The Golden Compass” (which they also liked), except that instead of taking place in a computer-generated fantasy world full of armored bears it is set in the real country of Iran, which is rendered in beautifully drawn ink-washed two-dimensional animation. “Persepolis” is also in French, but don’t let that put you off. If your children can read just-right books, surely they can read subtitles too.
    Death and sexuality figure in the story, but those themes are handled with such wit and delicacy that “Persepolis” is more likely to inspire interesting conversations than awkward questions or uncomfortable feelings. The same might not be true of “Juno,” the story of a 16-year-old girl’s unintended pregnancy and her entanglement with the couple who want to adopt her baby.
    Like other parents I’ve spoken to about it, I wish “Juno” were just a bit less lighthearted about teenage pregnancy, the real social and psychological consequences of which are never quite acknowledged. But the movie’s spirit is sweet and smart and youthful, and the relationships it depicts feel very tender and real. If it provokes you to have that long-dreaded talk with your son or daughter, so much the better. You might have needed to anyway.
    And the more movies you see, the more there is to talk about and to learn. I suppose a trip to see “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” might inspire a multigenerational inquiry into the history of the American presidency and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. But this is likely to be lost in the childlike excitement at the action sequences and adult puzzlement about what ever happened to Nicolas Cage. (It may take a viewing of decidedly not-just-right movies like “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Wild at Heart” to explain that one. Though you could just as easily rent “Raising Arizona” or “Moonstruck.”)
    But there are in any case better cinematic windows on the past. You can explore the painful history of Afghanistan not only in “Charlie Wilson’s War” (which leavens the pain with some boisterous and nostalgic cold war patriotism) but also in “The Kite Runner,” which is after all a tale of childhood friendship. “The Great Debaters” wraps its history lesson, about the American South in the era of Jim Crow, in a rousing (if somewhat formulaic) sports movie about a tough coach and his team of overachieving underdogs. There are some intimations of sex and violence, but nothing that is shocking or out of place, and the performances, especially by some of the younger actors, are examples of the excellence that is the movie’s theme.
    So there is no need to shell out for a baby sitter, or subject yourself to repeated viewings of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” or “The Water Horse” — though if that’s your thing, I won’t stop you. But there are a lot of good movies out there right now, and if you haven’t seen them yet — in addition to the one’s I’ve mentioned there are “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Into the Wild,” “I Am Legend” and “Michael Clayton” — consider taking the children along. Some of these films may be too hot or too rough, but for that reason they may also be just right.