Well, you want your kids to be interesting people, don't you? In my column I write about how a little cinematic shock is good for their hearts and minds. And I endorse a few subversive classics that they'll never forget. Even an R-rated one...
"I have to confess something. Not because I’m ashamed, but because I want others to try it too. Recently, I showed my elementary school-aged kids an R-rated film. Straight up, big capital R, must be accompanied by an adult. There, I said it.
I’ll probably escape judgment for already screening the classic trifecta of Goonies, Gremlins and Ghostbusters, masterpieces all. But those are rated PG, albeit by the looser, generally cooler standards of the 1980s. Putting aside some cursing, a few bits of racy business, and the violence against ghosts, these films are pretty mild.
My R-rated screening party featured the 1986 film for the ages, Stand By Me. And while there are a few mortifying moments in each of these cinematic selections, Stand By Me, based on a Stephen King novella, is the most mature material."
A word of warning, if you plan to try this one at home, take a peek at the website, Common Sense Media, and review the Stand By Me entry. You’ll learn that there’s prolific cussing, abundant cigarette smoking, some implied sexuality, and, oh right, one very dead body. But the gorgeous humanity, the remarkable pain of boyhood, and the uncomplicated childhood camaraderie shines here too.
Stand by Me
My kids were riveted. They were agog over the poetic swearing, missed some mature references, despised the bullies, and adored the heroes: Gordie, Vern, Teddy and Chris. They understood completely by the end of the film that they had just seen something they would never forget.
In our family, watching movies together is a sacred pastime, dovetailing nicely with the fact that there are too many days off from school lately. Holidays, Election Day, half-days, all kinds of weekdays when I’m supposed to be working but can’t, and though I love slow mornings in pajamas and lazy hours with the kids, I often prescribe a movie at our beloved Cobble Hill Cinema to fill some of the afternoons. The kids are thrilled, popping Snowcaps and Sour Patch Kids four at a time, while I sip my child-sized Barq’s root beer in the anticipatory darkness. (I ordered the “small” a month ago and was presented with what looked like a table-keg with a straw in it. Required two hands.)
More and more, I’m finding that as smartly witty and engaging as the first half of these kid-flicks are, the second half is equally tedious, gratuitously action packed and snoozy. There seems to be a real crisis in the third act of these movies, a crisis that I’m sure my kids couldn’t articulate but still seem to notice. A similar problem plagues adult movies, particularly if the last third is marked by action sequences, explosions, and slow-mo penultimate moments. I physically feel the glacial drift of my attention.
And then there’s the tyranny of the 3D machine, which is only remarkable for making the color of once glorious images muddy, and for enhancing the cuteness of the kids in the audience wearing the large specs. MAKE IT STOP. I leave the theater feeling a tiny bit dejected.
Lately, kid movies are just too long, too interested in extending their plots into pulse pounding directions that jam up the second half but don’t clearly serve the story. There have been recent exceptions of course. The ultra-weird ParaNorman was a dark favorite of my son’s, and Hotel Transylvania a super funny and edgy movie my daughter watched twenty times. Their tastes are sometimes predictable—he digs Iron Giant and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, while she is riveted by narratives from the bizarre Canine Canon: the Air Buddies trilogy, Beverly Hills Chihuahua (acceptable viewing in our house when someone is home sick with a tubercular cough or hallucinatory-level fever).
Sometimes they’re surprising—I note with pride that they both love Corpse Bride and the holiday masterpiece, A Christmas Story. But a few real low points—God help me, Smurfs 2! —made me feel ashamed for taking them instead of staying home in our pj’s and baking pies or doing puzzles, something companionable and cozy and ultimately frustrating, but socially sanctioned as: enriching.
Even sweet, inoffensive selections like Disney’s Planes and DreamWorks’ Turbo, both opened in 2013, were remarkably similar in both protagonists and plotting. Whether it’s a talking snail or talking crop duster, my children love an underdog. The formula is effective, but there was an unsettling feeling of, “Am I losing my mind? Have I seen this already?” The feeling didn’t stop me from tearing up at the end of each, lackluster as they were, which causes my kids to crane their heads at me in the theater, confused by my weepiness. The brilliant, and, in my opinion, best animated film in recent history, Finding Nemo, usually compels me to gather tissues, so moved am I with bittersweet feelings about the ending. I wait with cautious glee for its much-anticipated sequel, Finding Dory, to come out in 2016.
In the meantime, I continue my boosterism and endorsement of films like Goonies, THE perfect outcast classic. My heart pounded with affection as a kid for Josh Brolin, who played the foxy older brother, Brandon Walsh. So effective was this film in every way—the romance, the adventure, the team of presumed losers, banding together in search of buried treasure—that boys, girls, and their parents went crazy for it. Of course my kids fell to the floor laughing about the statue with the broken penis, but they also cheered when the Goonies saved their families’ modest homes. I mean, One-Eyed Willy is hard to top. Only that kind of excellence in storytelling, casting, and photography could have made me wish I were a Goonie too, living in the dreary, condemned Goondocks.
Same for the riotous Ghostbusters. I cannot recommend highly enough the chance to see your children laugh at the brilliance of Bill Murray in all his dry, supremely confident glory. Also, there is slime.
Everyone is the best judge of their own kids—if there’s a child that will remain terrified by the cataclysms and hellhounds in Ghostbusters, or unsettled by Sigourney Weaver’s amorous campaign, then they’d be advised to skip that one. Who needs nightmares and pleas to keep klieg lights on for six months after a movie they’ve watched? If your kid will develop PTSD after seeing murderous Gremlins meet their ends in grisly microwavings and blenderings, that’s a good one to wait on as well.
The 1984 movie that started the shift from true kiddie stuff to more mature youth narratives, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, birthed a whole new category. Spielberg had made Raiders of the Lost Ark, rated PG, which included memorably frightening things like the Nazi Face Melt, but until Temple of Doom and the human sacrifice scene, there was no such thing as PG13. After a backlash and parental outcries, Spielberg, along with the ratings commission, came up with the PG13 designation. A lot of things that were shocking then still would be today—hard to overstate the powerful image of a bare hand reaching into a man’s chest and pulling out a still-pumping, gooey heart. But the feast scene featuring spoonfuls of monkey brains? No biggie these days. Kids in Brooklyn are proudly multi-cultural and encouraged to eat nose to tail.
The larger point is this: I think it’s a great to feel a bit scared sometimes while watching a film or reading a book. It’s good to feel a little confused, a little unsettled even. I’m not talking about horrors and the pea soup fire-hosings in The Exorcist, or sexual images that should be nowhere near the eyes of a child. I’m describing the kinds of feelings of wonder and melancholy I had when watching Stand By Me for the first time. Those moments from my childhood stand out as awakenings, touchstones in my understanding of serious storytelling. I won’t stop exposing my kids to the innocence and high quality of movies like Toy Story andMonsters University, both lovely.
I just wish the animated genre didn’t feel increasingly geared to poke adult viewers with sarcasm and relentless jokes. The non-stop wisecracks and punning in these movies is getting exhausting, too topically wired to pop culture.
By screening some of the classics I mention, I think you can give kids an experience they can’t have with many of the modern PG and G releases. You can supplement the bloated, frosty mugs of movie pabulum with a chance to encounter a darker, more complicated form of wholesomeness.
I love Nemo and his broken fin, but as underdogs go, I know my kids will remember Gordie, Vern, Teddy and Chris far into adulthood, the way I have. By then, they’ll even understand why their mother sat next to them on the couch when they were young, wiping tears off her face as Gordie narrates the last line of the film, a line spoken by a man looking far back into his childhood and feeling overcome with affection and grief. Words too true and devastating to ever forget.
He says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
This essay first appeared on the South Brooklyn Post on November 22, 2013.