Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.
Our content ratings(0-10): Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.
Romans 12:2-4 (J.B. Phillips)
As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!
1 Thessalonians 17-20
Director Jason Reitman and co-screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson take a fascinating look at a group of upscale white men, women and teens (with one exception) who use and are shaped by their Internet devices that seem to be as much a part of themselves as their eyes and ears.
Although in many ways like ourselves, theirs is a secular existence devoid of any sense of a higher power that might connect them at a deeper level than physical lust–their main use of the Internet with its social media outlets seems to be for sex and spreading news and gossip. The goddess Astarte might be dead, but her spirit lives on in the lives of these “Men, Women, and Children” of the 21st century.
The members of the fine ensemble cast portray the following characters:
Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt are Don and Helen Truby whose marriage has become ho-hum. She joins the Ashley Madison website in search of a “soul mate.” (If you Google the name, you will see above a photo of a couple engaged in sex the boast that it has 29,230,000 members!) Don, a consumer of on-line porn, hooks up with an online escort—the irony being that due to a problem with his own PC, he sneaks into his son’s room and uses that one. The spouses, deceiving one another, consummate their adulterous schemes at motels. Helen’s partner turns out to be an African American, Dennis Haysbert, identified in the cast list only by his Ashley Madison site name “Secretluvur.”
Dean Norris is Kent Mooney, a year ago abandoned by his wife in search of a more adventurous partner. He is struggling to understand his brooding teenage son Tim (Ansel Elgort), who had quit the high school football team. Kent had been a member of it, so he cannot fathom why his son would walk away from the glory and prestige it had brought him. Tim, in resisting his father’s and his classmates’ pressure to rejoin, endures harassment at school, as well as criticism at home. The jaded boy finds no meaning in it, retreating into a video game where he is successful and has a number of “friends” whom he has never seen in person. It is on FaceBook that he comes across his mother’s page, discovering that she is getting married to her lover—and when she learns that he has been reading her postings, she blocks him.
Jennifer Garner is Patricia Beltmyer, an overly protective mother who tracks daughter Brandy’s (Kaitlyn Dever) every movement from early morning to bedtime. She demands access to Brandy’s cell phone and computer, thus reading all of the girl’s texts, emails and Facebook posts—even deleting those she considers inappropriate. This is a woman who definitely needs to get a life of her own!
Judy Greer is Donna Clint, unsuccessful at becoming an actress, so now she promotes her cheerleader daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) by taking her to auditions where she takes photographs for Hannah’s website. She even has set up on the site a “private membership” option for the more provocative photos—which will create problems later on for the girl when she has a shot at being cast for a popular reality show.
Elena Kampouris’ Allison Doss is addicted to pro-anorexic websites when she’s tempted by food. She also is one of the students at school who take out their phones to record a fight or unusual incident to post on the Internet. Following a quick sexual encounter with an upper-class jock, she herself becomes the subject of numerous posts when complications from her resulting pregnancy cause her to faint at school amidst a pool of blood in the girls’ bathroom.
As you can see, there are a lot of subplots to keep in mind. To set these human tales into the context of The Big Picture, the filmmakers intersperse shots of the interstellar spaceship The Voyager and comments by Emma Thompson as the omniscient Narrator tying things together with her wry observations.
The two stories given most screen time are those of Don and Helen Truby and Tim and Brandy’s, thus covering all ages and sexes of the film’s title. There is a possibility of growth and reconciliation in both stories. I was especially intrigued by Tim, who has apparently thought through the implications of the materialistic philosophy he espouses when he talks with the school counselor (played by Phil LaMarr—I had forgotten that he too is African American), the latter badly in need of being educated by the boy concerning the Internet. When The Shrink (as LaMarr is billed) asks why the boy will not rejoin the football team, Tim explains that his playing has no meaning in the light of the big picture in which everything will run down and disappear in the cosmic span of time. Why bother with such trivial things?
However, one day at the mall food court Tim does bother when he sees Brandy sitting alone at a table. He had been attracted to her at school, but had made little attempt to talk to her. This time I wonder if it is because she is uncharacteristically (for her classmates) reading a book, rather than texting. The two of them begin a relationship, their texts to each other kept secret from her prying mother for a while because she has a second phone and Tumblr account. However, when Patricia does discover her daughter’s hidden phone, her interference leads to calamitous results that will force her to re-evaluate her intrusive acts.
Each of the various stories has a sign of hope, well, most of them do—we are left to wonder about cheerleader Hannah, whom after a game we last see sitting disconsolately alone in the bleachers after she has blown a gasket with something that her newly enlightened mother has done. Does the narcissistic girl value her thwarted show business career more than the mother she has angrily attacked and run from? Will the transformed mother be able to undo the damage she has inflicted on the girl during her stage mother phase? And will the relationship that Donna had begun with Tim’s father Kent survive her current crisis?
The film offers a great opportunity for each of us to reflect on our use of social media and how our devices are affecting us. I know I thought back to my first use of a Commodore 64 computer back in the 1980s because the woman who typed my reviews got a full-time job. Learning to type with two or three fingers fairly rapidly, I saw the computer as merely a word processor. In the early 90s I saw no need for the newfangled Internet, though when I yielded to the entreaties of a colleague with whom I co-edited the Methodist publication Real to Reel, I soon saw why he had kept after me. Today I cannot imagine writing without constant access to the Internet, where I can find quick answers and information for my writing needs, and post my reviews on VP’s website. Another friend fairly recently gifted me with an iPod, from which I now receive more of my doses of daily news than from TV newscasts, as well as checking in on Facebook while eating breakfast. But I still do not have a cell phone, thus easily resisting the urge to check it every hour or text my current doings and thoughts.
What about you? How has the Internet both enriched and complicated your work and play? Lest I give the impression that this film is merely a visual rant damning the Internet, what positive uses do we see in it (though admittedly, the film dwells more on the negative)? How does it empower young people who feel socially awkward? Would it have made for a more balanced picture if there were scenes in which teachers and students were using the web for classwork?
Both adult and youth groups will find numerous issues to discuss—though any youth leader will need to inform parents and gain their consent due to the sexual content of the film—not that the sex is overly graphic, the trysts are shown only as the couples come together, the camera then switching to the story of another character. People of faith will note the total absence of any church, synagogue, mosque or temple. How does the secularity of the filmmaker influence his depiction? What might a person of faith say to any of these characters? In an age when there is a growing number who check off “None” on religious surveys, these are questions worth pondering and discussing—and I especially recommend seeing this in company with at least one other person of faith, there being so many details that no one can remember them all.
Let me leave you with the specific case of Tim. Compare what he sees when he looks up at the night sky with what the psalmist sees. Tim certainly lives up to the first part of the apostle Paul’s admonition to the Romans, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould” by refusing to rejoin the football team. How might the church—or you as its emissary—present him with the apostle Paul’s alternative to his current philosophy contained in the second part of the quotation, “but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity”?
One more thought before signing off on this provocative movie: watch for a beautiful “moment of grace” that might be debatable, especially because it does not include openness that is regarded as so important in a marriage. If Helen accepts Don’s offer, will there marriage be saved, or–?
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.