YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS! – Nordling rides along with TRUE GRIT!
Hello everyone, Nordling here, with what I hope will be a regular column here at AICN – YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS! Let me explain.
One of my favorite things about being a movie geek is, as a parent, you get to share your obsession/dementia/life’s joy with your kids. I’ve pushed a lot of movies on my daughter, and some she took to, and some she didn’t. That’s okay. She’s her own person, and I want her to develop her own tastes. Most recently she’s become obsessed with SCOT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and proud papa I am for that.
However, as a parent, I try to steer away from movies that aren’t exactly nutritious. I’d much rather her see a Miyazaki or a Pixar animated film than some of the other films that pass for family entertainment these days. But I also don’t want it to be work. I’d rather her come to these quality films on her own and not be pushed by her old man. Otherwise I’ll push the “cool” right out of these movies.
With that in mind, I thought it would be fun and informative to review family films from this perspective – sift through the trash and find the pearls. As movie geeks, we know what we like and what is simply pandering and manipulation. To that end, I’m starting this column, entitled YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS! Films that the entire family can enjoy, and not feel guilty about it. Quality films that challenge the young as well as the young-at-heart.
The filmmakers that inspired this column’s title are first up for review – the Coen Brothers’ TRUE GRIT. Based more on the original novel by Charles Portis than the John Wayne Oscar-winning film, at first blush, you might not consider this a family film, and I would say up front that for the little ones, 8 and under, the film may not be appropriate. It’s rated PG-13, for some violence and some adult situations. You know your own children best, and know what they can handle, and one scene depicts some fingers getting severed, but it’s very fast and there isn’t a lot of blood. The gunfights are fast and fairly blood-free, much like the gunfights of older Westerns. I wanted to let any parents know that up front, and I’m not wishing to spoil the film for anyone. There are scenes of children being threatened, but it’s no worse than the adventure films that Disney used to make.
Those Disney films from yesteryear are actually the closest to the feel of TRUE GRIT. Although it’s a Coen film through and through, it might be their most accessible work since RAISING ARIZONA. Mattie Ross (played wonderfully and without fear by Hailee Stansfield) is one of the most compelling child characters to come along in a long time. Spirited, intelligent, and brave, she commands your attention whenever she is onscreen and I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for her screen audition. It’s one of the best performances of the year.
Mattie comes to town to seek justice for her father, who was cold-bloodedly shot dead by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Only 14 years old, she already bears the weight of the world, taking care of her family and the funeral arrangements for her father. When it becomes clear that local law enforcement will not help her, Mattie seeks the aid of Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track Chaney down. Cogburn, a federal marshal, was a formidable foe but now seems to know more about killing a liquor bottle than any bad guys. Also after Chaney is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who chased Chaney out of Texas after Chaney killed a state senator. Cogburn knows the territory and the people in it, and LaBoeuf knows Chaney, so Mattie is forced to bring both of them along to find the man who killed her father. Unfortunately for the three of them, Chaney has fallen with Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang, and taking Chaney down may be more difficult for the three of them to handle.
Now, what makes this a quality family film? First, the dialogue, which is rich and lyrical. Like MILLER’S CROSSING, another film that has dialogue that pops off the page, I could listen to TRUE GRIT for hours, along with Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score, except I’d miss out on Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography. The characters speak as if the contraction hadn’t been invented yet. Parents should also know that while the verbiage may be complicated to hear, it’s remarkably easy to follow and has only a few instances of harsh language (although people familiar with the original film should know that Wayne’s great declaration remains). What’s more, the dialogue is funny, engaging, and smart. Kids should have no trouble following it and in fact it’s quite stimulating listening to the back-and-forth between the characters. A particular scene comes to mind when Mattie haggles with the local horse dealer – it’s practically an algebra word problem, except it’s done humorously and it’s very well-acted.
Mattie Ross is a wonderful role model for kids. She’s bright and won’t be taken advantage of and I think girls would relate to that. It’s rare that 14-year-old girls are the centerpiece of a film like this, especially a big budget Western, but she holds her own with Bridges, Damon, and Brolin. Little girls seeing this would do worse than emulating Mattie Ross. I wouldn’t mind my daughter taking a page from Mattie’s book, actually. She’s strong-willed and not afraid. Jeff Bridges’ Cogburn is rough around the edges, and you sense he’s haunted from the life that he’s led, but he can’t help but see a kindred soul in Mattie and despite himself finds himself getting attached. LeBoeuf also admires Mattie’s spark. There is one awkward moment in the film when LaBoeuf tries to steal a kiss from Mattie but it’s played innocently and for humor. Josh Brolin plays Chaney as a goof, although a dangerous one.
The action sequences are thrilling and the film is never dull, even with all the dialogue. Deakins’ cinematography is jawdropping, although he doesn’t go for the large vistas like so many other Westerns do. Deakins’ TRUE GRIT looks lived in, unpolished, and thus more believable. Kids will marvel at the gunfights and the scenery. Most kids don’t really appreciate Westerns as a genre, but I think Mattie as a character is a great entrance point for them, and I imagine many girls in particular would see themselves filling Mattie’s shoes.
TRUE GRIT never talks down to the audience. I think kids would find the action and the characters engaging. And they would root for Rooster as he rides the countryside helping this little girl get her justice. This wouldn’t be the first film that the Coens have made for a wide group of people. I’d go so far to say that RAISING ARIZONA, with its slapstick humor and hilarious dialogue, would play well to kids too. But I feel that parents and kids together would bond over TRUE GRIT. I can’t wait to take my daughter to see it when it opens this Christmas, and I can’t wait to see it again. When I say family film, for TRUE GRIT, I mean not just your children, but your parents as well. Take the whole crew. I am. I’m going to trot out the cliché, but in this case it’s very true – they really don’t make them like this anymore.