Helping children navigate the internet is a parental priority. Parents differ in their approach. Some parents are overly protective, others not protective enough, still others regard social media as a way for their children to be popular, possibly even help a son or daughter launch a career.
Jason Reitman tackles these parental challenges in his film, Men, Women, and Children, based on the novel by Chad Kultgen. Schools would do well to screen this film for parents, teachers, and students, and host a lively discussion afterwards. Critics may quibble with the creative aspects of Reitman’s film, whether the script, the editing, the special effects, even the acting (although an excellent cast makes the latter less likely.) What Reitman has accomplished, however, is to provide a platform for some of the most important issues involving technology. That the film is also entertaining is a plus.
Margaret Sagarese and I spent more than a decade writing books for parents of young adolescents and teens. While the parents depicted in the film are fictional, we frequently met their real life counterparts. The extremes were most striking – mothers like Jennifer Garner’s character who insisted on reading a son’s or daughter’s emails and texts, and fathers like Mr. Doss (J.K. Simmons), clueless that a child was using the internet to support dangerous behavior. We also met the students, very much like the teens played by Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, who told us how they felt about their parents spying on them, not trusting them. Rather than make them feel safe, a parent’s intrusive behavior succeeded in driving them away. (The anti-spying contingent made such an impression on us that we wrote a book, What Are Your Doing in There? Balancing Your Need to Know with Your Adolescent’s Need to Grow, to help parents find better ways to communicate with and keep their children safe.)
The teens in this film come out looking far better than the parents. The young couple at the center are Tim Mooney (Elgort) and Brandy Beltmeyer (Dever), normal kids trying to navigate adolescence while coping with difficult home situations. Tim’s mother abandoned him and his father, Kent (Dean Norris). When Tim runs across his mother’s engagement announcement on Facebook, he’s devastated, more so when she blocks him from communicating with her. Kent’s bruised ego leaves no room for consoling his son. Rather, he begins dating Donna Clint (Judy Greer), a failed actress who hopes to advance her own daughter’s career through a website with racy photos.
Brandy’s mother, Patricia (Garner), is so panicked about the internet, she sponsors parental meetings in her home where she recites alarming statistics and encourages other parents to micro-manage their children. For her part, Patricia, reads Brandy’s emails and text messages, reviews what websites she’s visited, and tracks her via the GPS in her cellphone. After reading a text from Tim, Patricia responds as Brandy, thus putting into play a tragic series of events.
Don Truby (Adam Sandler) and his wife, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), are living in a sexless marriage while their son watches hours of porn online. Like father like son: both get so involved watching porn that the real thing seems lacking. Trying to recapture the passion and excitement, Don begins using an escort service, while Rachel engages in overnights at a hotel with men she’s found on the internet.
To support an eating disorder, Alison Doss (Elena Kampouris) relies on websites promoting anorexia. (These websites do exist and are very scary.) Compliments from friends, particularly boys, about her thinness, bolsters her resolve to continue her diet. Her parents allow her to “eat” in her room, oblivious to what she’s doing. When she finally ends up in the hospital, they are forced to face the situation, but even then, succeed in making matters worse.
Elgort, whose performance as a dying cancer patient in The Fault in Our Stars received rave reviews, demonstrates that he’s in this for the long run. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s absolutely adorable.) Dever allows us to feel her despair as she struggles to prove to her mother the obvious: that she needs her mother’s understanding and love, not her surveillance. Many teens will connect with her character.
While Sandler is better known for his comedic roles, he is a far better dramatic actor. He’s excellent here as a husband trying desperately to hold onto his marriage, but willing to cop to his own mistakes. Rosemarie DeWitt matches Sandler, running through a whole range of emotions as she first enjoys the thrill of beginning an affair, and then suffers guilt and embarrassment when she encounters her husband while out on a date.
Both Greer and Garner are having banner years, turning up on the big screen and in well-made TV commercials. They manage to find substance in their characters. While we deplore their tactics, on some level, we understand their desperation. Misguided as they are, both women are trying to help their daughters. In the end, they see the error of their ways and, hopefully, their epiphanies will inspire other parents.
Emma Thompson serves as narrator, her observations an attempt to put into perspective how the evolution of technology has far outpaced our ability to adapt. Graphics show what everyone is emailing and texting, emphasizing that we are communicating more screen to screen rather than face to face. After watching this film on screen, parents would do well to follow up with some face to face time with their children.
Men, Women, and Children opens nationwide October 10, 2014.