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Many of the most interesting and engaging films deal with family relationships.Here are reviews of a number of films that provide insights into the worlds of parents and their children.

The Squid and the Whale
Is it Dad’s day or Mom’s? I know of no other movie that deals so realistically with the ways that kids grapple with aftermath of a divorce. The beauty of this film is how it shows a familiar occurrence from the point of view of the two kids, one boy just entering adolescence and the other firmly rooted in its midst. As they try to adapt to circumstances neither has chosen, the boys select sides. The older son strains to find a role model in his defeated, self-involved father and the younger son seeks solace with his self-involved, but still nurturing, mom. The characters are multi-dimensional, and while the perspective is the kids’, the flawed parents are portrayed with enough depth that their plight evokes some empathy as they struggle to assuage their own guilt and provide for their still stunned sons. Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels are inspired in portraying 1980’s parents! (I.S. 11/19/05 )

March of the Penguins
Think you're a devoted parent? Penguin Moms and Dads overcome unbelievable hardships to hatch and protect their young. The march makes human parenting look like a stroll in the park- on a balmy day. The documentary is a riveting look at nature, and how instinct prevails. Like Winged Migration, this film will fill you with awe. (I.S.)

Broken Flowers
When an "aging Don Juan bachelor," played by Bill Murray, receives a letter saying he has a son he never knew about, he sets off on a search. The prospect of fatherhood triggers new feelings in him as he observes the current lives of former girlfriends, and imagines himself caring about someone besides himself. (I.S.)

One of the best things about this film about Ray Charles is Ray's mother who prepared him for life as a blind person by encouraging his independence. This is a film and a half, with great music sung by Charles; great acting by Jamie Foxx and an inspiring story that touches on the history of music, race and religion in the US over the past 60 years.(I.S.)


My Architect
After watching My Architect, an 80- year- old stranger sitting next to me shared the story of how her own thrice- married father and she were estranged during most of her childhood. Maybe the reason this documentary quest strikes such a chord in viewers, many of whom have seen it more than once, is that it raises basic questions of what it means to be a father and what it means to be an artist. Nathaniel Kahn sets out to learn more about his father, architect Louis Kahn, and discovers a complicated man, committed to creating enduring monuments while juggling relationships with his three separate families. Kahn is variously described as a nomad, a child, secretive, and a visionary. Architects Philip Johnson and I.M.Pei praise Kahn's artistic integrity. The women with the most reason to be angry at Kahn explain, lovingly and apparently sincerely, how he enriched their lives. Visiting Kahn's buildings, at Yale, Philips Exeter, Salk Institute, and in Bangladesh gives Nathaniel insight into his father's artistic journey. The differing perspectives about Kahn are not summed up for us. Instead, viewers, along with Nathaniel, get to form their own opinions. (I.S. 3/3/04)

In America
Jim Sheridan and his two grown daughters wrote In America based on their own experiences coming to New York from Ireland in the 1980's . The sisters who play the young daughters are totally believable -- the older as a dreamy observer and the younger as a delighted enthusiast. Seeing the U.S. through the eyes of the children is the joy of this film. The parents, struggling with grief over the loss of a young son, are muted in their responses. But the girls' curiosity and thoughtful consideration of everything from Halloween, to New York apartment living; from a heat wave to their actor father's despondency gives In America its voice and point of view. The family's friendship with their ailing neighbor, a painter, moves the plot and nudges the family to new understandings. In America is a film about how family members adjust to an unfamiliar setting, cope with the bleakest of times, and despite many setbacks, provide each other with the support and strength that promote healing. I.S. 3/3/04

Girlhood, an independent documentary by Liz Garbus, follows the lives of two teenage girls getting ready to leave a detention facility. What is both surprising about Girlhood is the complexity and closeness of each girl's relationship with her mother! The mothers couldn't be more different. One is a drug addict who has spent years in jail; the other is a self-sacrificing working mom who virtually hovers over her rebellious daughter. Over the several years that the film was shot both girls mature emotionally. Girlhood is a glimpse into a world most of us never see on film. Just as Hoop Dreams followed the lives of real life teen boys, Girlhood follows the lives of young women struggling to find a place in the world. I.S. 3/3/04

The Triplets of Belleville
An intrepid granny and a trio of elderly singing sisters pool their ingenuity to save the bike racer grandson in this amazingly animated, madcap adventure. The four heroines of The Triplets of Belleville may all be senior citizens, but are nevertheless brave, strong and focused. The granny makes good use of her elevated shoe, "the triplettes" dance rhythmically, and one wields a mean frying pan.

What stands out most is the quality of the animation; caricature in the very best sense of the word. The fat are gloriously obese, the muscular ripple, the lean are emaciated and the bent curve like Cs. Visual exaggeration is used to express emotion so effectively that there is never a moment when we aren't keyed in to what the creator, writer, animator Sylvain Chomet is trying to say. His visual commentary ranges from the political to the canine; for even granny's dog has aspirations. Yet the messages are often subtle and multilayered. They draw on a rich history of animation, and remind us why a picture can be worth a 1,000 words. This is a film that will inspire viewers of all ages by exploring the power of animation. The Triplets draws on motion, music, and the impact of expressive line drawing to make us gasp, flinch and laugh. I.S. , CreativeParents Review, 11/30/03

The Station Agent
The dialogue and acting work beautifully in this character study of three people, all in transition, who eventually connect with each other despite themselves. Fin, a railroad buff, is a dwarf whose sense of dignity, privacy and self-protection are beautifully conveyed by the actor Peter Dinklage. Joe, played by Bobby Cannavale, is totally believable as a cute, friendly guy who needs to be around people; we've all met him. Patricia Clarkson does a powerful job of playing a recently separated wife, grieving for her deceased young son.

The Station Agent is about the ways that people distance themselves, and the shared experiences that bring them together. It is filled with what visual artists call "negative space, " for it is the waiting, the silences, and the withdrawals of trust that make the gradual connections especially effective. We are mesmerized as the characters gravitate toward one another like magnets pulled by some unseen emotional logic. The film has great integrity. No false notes. The Station Agent resonates like a clear bell. I.S., CreativeParents Review, 11/30/03

To Be and To Have
Georges Lopez has his hands full, teaching children from age 4 to 12 in one room in a farm village school in France. You'd never know it from his demeanor. Calm, supportive and well-organized, he listens to his pupils, understands their differences and instructs them with patience and empathy. To Be and To Have, an award-winning documentary, is captivating and eye-opening. As viewers, we get to know Olivier, struggling with his father's illness; the painfully shy Nathalie and the younger kids; JoJo, Alize and Marie. Each child's personality and learning style is distinctly revealed. We also see parents struggling to help children with homework, sometimes an effort that involves extended family.

To Be and To Have does not have a traditional plot, but because we care about Monsieur Lopez and the kids we watch with fascination as the school year unfolds. The visually beautiful film is a tribute to a talented teacher and shows how kids, including some with real challenges, are most likely to thrive when they are treated with respect. I.S., CreativeParents Review, 11/30/03

Pieces of April
April's mom, Joy, is clearly ambivalent about her wayward daughter. She claims she has no positive memories of April, yet Joy is dressed for Thanksgiving and waiting in the car before other family members are even awake. The film's tension centers around a difficult mother-daughter relationship. April has always been "trouble" and seems even more so in contrast to her goody-goody younger sister. Yet it becomes clear that April and her mom have more in common than it first appears and are both, in their own ways rebels.

The story revolves around April's attempt to create a Thanksgiving meal for her parents and two siblings, whom she's invited to her tiny apartment in New York. Katie Holmes plays April, who favors black nail polish, tattoos and punky make-up. When the oven doesn't work April must figure out a plan that involves an assortment of New York neighbors. April's mother, played by Patricia Clarkson, is spirited despite being debilitated by advanced cancer. Peter Hedges wrote Pieces of April as a tribute to his own mother, who died of cancer. This is a movie about family and reconciliation. Often very funny, it looks at a potentially sad topic through a refreshingly inventive lens. I.S., CreativeParents Review, 11/30/03

Among the films released within the last few years were some that dealt with parenting and family themes in a compelling way. Here are a few of interest:

Amelie is a playful homage to the way creativity and imagination can be used to do good and have fun at the same time. Amelie, the only child of a set of astoundingly quirky parents, grows up into a lovable eccentric.As an adult she sets out to improve the lives of people she knows, as well as those she hasn't yet met. She puts together a set of video clips that provide her house-bound neighbor with a glimpse into the outside world. She returns abandoned toys to a former tenant in her apartment building. Through many plot twists she uses her intelligence to solve problems, and finds love in the bargain. (In French, English subtitles)


Monster's Ball is a serious and sad film that deals with some of the tragic complexities of parent-child relationships. Halle Berry's performance reflects both the fierce attachment and frustration her character feels for her son, as the two of them face overwhelming loss. Billy Bob Thornton plays a father and a son discovering, well into adulthood, that he is a different person than he'd always believed.


A Beautiful Mind touches on the difficulties of a family faced with a parent's mental illness. While much of the film focuses on John Nash's struggle to maintain his abilities as a mathematician, there are scenes that show how justifiably terrified his wife is to leave him alone with their baby. This film portrays a little- discussed issue with honesty and empathy.


As we add to our list of films, here are two good ones from a few years back:

Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy is about Gilbert and Sullivan at a low and a high point in their collaboration. The low point is when Sullivan decides he no longer wants to write music with his longtime colleague. The high point is when they subsequently write and produce the "Mikado."

The film is a terrific glimpse into how artists derive their inspiration and how ideosyncratic collaboration can be. It's also a great reminderof the timeless quality of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The word "delightful" often gets misused, but unquestionably applies to Gilbert and Sullivan.

While the film is too long and too explicit for kids under 13, parents would do well find others ways to introduce their kids to such treasures as "The Mikado" and "H.M.S. Pinafore." There's a CD of the soundtrack for the film, and of course countless other recordings are available.

A favorite moment in the film is when Gilbert's supportive but lonely wife wistfully muses how nice it would be if, at the end of every day, each of us could get a round of applause for our accomplishments-- for a job well done.

Mansfield Park
Drawing on Jane Austen's book, her early letters and journal, Patricia Rozema has created a film that is both wry and lively. It's also an examination, and ultimately a validation, of such worthy values as honesty and integrity.

It reminded us of the excellent French film "Ridicule," which also places a thoughtful but believably human protagonist in a society rife with pretentious people in a soul-destroying setting. In each the hero stays the course and, ultimately triumphs through intelligence and persistence.

Again, this film is not for young children. But it is a film that will renew a parent's faith that it's worth making the effort to instill solid values.

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