Today I want to share some impressions of two movies that depict family relationships, human imperfections and moral choices with humor, depth and an authenticity that in my view is rare. I find that in the realm of modern entertainment there is often a tendency to portray stereotypes and shy away from the real complexities present in family life. The Descendants directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney and Win, Win, directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, happily avoid this trap.
The Descendants, which has been critically acclaimed, explores a family’s reaction when the mother is severely injured in a boating accident and the father is left to parent his two daughters of elementary and high school age. During the period when the family waits to see whether the mother will regain consciousness or need to be removed from life supports and succumb to her injuries, the husband/father faces the challenge of dealing with his older daughter who is troubled and in a rehab facility as the story begins. He decides to bring her home to help him cope with the needs of her younger sister and to give her a chance to deal directly with her mother’s condition. One of the major strengths of the film is the exploration of the difficult emotions the children experience when faced with the possible death of their mother. For teenagers, the foremost of these is anger. As events unfold we learn that the teenage daughter, Alex, apparently has much to be angry about. The movie does not shrink from delving into this but rather does so with an unusual empathy for Alex and portrays with surprising accuracy the extent to which a teen’s acting out can be a direct reflection of a troubled marital relationship. There are many other sub plots that are developed with amazing sensitivity.
Win, Win is a less well-known film that has been available On Demand . It also explores themes of human imperfection, adult mistakes and their reverberations in one’s relationships. Paul Giamatti is a lawyer, who, though basically a good person, makes a bad decision due to increasing desperation over financial problems. In some ways, the plot seems farfetched, as his efforts to do damage control become increasingly complicated by events he cannot predict or control. However, as he negotiates the situation while trying to regain his moral compass, I think many people will be able to identify with him. Amy Ryan is great as his wife who both holds him to a high standard and never flags in her loyalty or acceptance as he tries to find a solution to his mistake. This movie too, focuses on adolescent struggles as one of the teenage members of the wrestling team he coaches takes a central role in his journey.
I absolutely loved these two movies. They are tender, inspiring and ultimately reassuring. They reflect the importance of openness about feelings, the idea that even a bad mistake can be redeemed, and the fact that strong relationships are best built on truth. The adults and the teens and the choices they make are portrayed with the kind of authenticity that will appeal to teenagers and allow them to engage with the films. In each story, the teenager is given a degree of responsibility that is fitting given the impact of the parent figure’s behavior on her/his life. Along with this responsibility comes just the right support and respect from the adults. Each film portrays moral choices as they occur in real life. These things all make them great fare for parents and teens to view together.