First, this was supposed to be a regular column back in the day. Supposed to be. That's all on me that it turned out otherwise; I'm a terrific procrastinator when it comes to my writing. I wanted YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS! to be a monthly thing at the least, and life seems to get away from me at every opportunity. My daughter just started high school, and with all the trials and tribulations that come with that. Still, I thought I'd get back to this in some form. I can't promise a regular entry into this column; only when I feel there's something worth writing about.
I've been thinking about this subject for a while, and Drew McWeeny's brilliant Big Question article brought it to the forefront again with me this week. Eventually, your son or daughter will step away from you and watch something you may deem inappropriate. It happens, especially these days when everything is available. It was a bit harder to watch an R rated movie when I was a kid, especially in the 1970s/early 1980s when home video hadn't really made a big dent yet. There was, of course, cable, but even then it hadn't spread so profusely.
My first R rated movie (and my first movie, period) was Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH. I don't remember seeing it the first time, because I was only a year old. My mom and dad went to a drive-in to see it, and apparently they learned about my fascination with movies early on because I apparently didn't fall asleep and watched the entire movie with them. It got to be that my parents would take me to movies all the time, because I'd happily sit and watch them. The first R movie I remember my parents consciously taking me to see was THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, when I was 9. I bitched and moaned earlier that summer about not seeing ALIEN, and when AMITYVILLE came out I told my parents I really wanted to see it, and could they please take me? I'd read the book. I could handle it. Not having read it themselves, they agreed. The original AMITYVILLE movie isn't all that - there's a bit of Margot Kidder nudity that my prepubescent mind latched onto (Lois Lane booby!) but for the most part, it's a rather silly movie. That next year I finally saw ALIEN on cable, and after that, my parents realized that my fragile little mind could handle it.
Nowadays, it's just a button-click away from THE EXORCIST. Children are so computer-savvy these days that it's already quite likely that if your kid is online, they've seen something that's probably not age appropriate. It's just the nature of the beast. On Demand doesn't care how old you are. And for many parents, it doesn't matter. But for those parents who still have some say in what their child watches, they know the day will come when their son or daughter will bring them a movie to watch and those parents will hae to figure out how to deal with that.
As a parent, I understand intrinsically that it's really not about whether the child is ready for a certain movie or not. It's more about whether or not the parents are ready to address certain questions about it. Everyone is different; everyone has their own threshold. My daughter's older now, but I know what she could handle and what would bother her. She doesn't like gore. I've explained it to her many times that gore needs to be taken into context; for myself, gore pulls me right out of a movie, except on rare occasions. I start to think about the makeup team that designed that particular effect, as opposed to what the gore means in a movie. That's why I prefer my horror films to be more subtle - what you think you saw is always more terrifying to me than having blood and guts shoved into your eyes. But my daughter has a definite line when it comes to it, and I have to respect that. I don't want her to watch something that's going to make her not enjoy it, because first and foremost, watching movies should be fun. If you're going to sit down with your kids to a movie, it should be enjoyable, and hopefully (if it's a great movie) they'll learn something from the story and put it to good use. It shouldn't be an endurance test.
My daughter's first R rated movie, the first one my wife and I sat down with her to watch, was SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, AND UNCUT. She'd been pestering us for months to watch it. She was 11 at the time. As I'm sure you know, SOUTH PARK isn't very scary, but it sure as hell isn't very appropriate for kids. I make no judgments on what parents allow their kids to watch (unless it's something really beyond the pale), but even with the musical numbers, SOUTH PARK pushes the envelope a bit. Trey Parker and Matt Stone hold nothing back, and because it's animation, they get away with quite a bit. My daughter had seen some of the tamer South Park episodes - it happens; I can't monitor everything - and so she said she could handle it.
And she did. She laughed at the jokes she got, enjoyed the songs (even "Uncle Fucka" - Lord knows she's heard me say worse in traffic from time to time), and when something came on that she was embarrassed about, she turned her head away. She censored herself, basically. She's seen it again a couple of times since, but that was the big hurdle for her. Since then she's seen a couple of R rated movies - SHAUN OF THE DEAD was a memorable viewing experience - but she hasn't gone out of her way to watch anything. At this point, if she wanted to watch a certain movie, I'd let her for the most part. And even if she didn't ask me, I feel pretty confident she won't be permanently scarred.
In the end, it's just a movie. It's a rite of passage to be sure, but it's probably less of one than, say, 15 years ago. We're inundated with so much age-inappropriate imagery every day, debating on what R rated movie your child sees is rather quaint and old fashioned. There are parents who still care, though, and for those parents, I'd like to make some recommendations on what R rated movie they might want to share with their kids. This is based on absolutely nothing but my own personal take and you know your children far better than I do. These are just a few movies that might lead to some decent learning experiences and enjoyment. I don't think it's anyone's job to legislate morality, and while I have issues with the MPAA, this isn't about that - it's about parents making those decisions and finding something that their kids will understand and enjoy without needlessly traumatizing them.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD
We have a thing called movie night, where we as a family watch a movie that one of us picks. On my turn, I picked SHAUN OF THE DEAD, even though it's R rated. My daughter is a big SCOTT PILGRIM fan, and I thought she would want to see another film by Edgar Wright. Yeah, as a movie geek, I may have been pushing her to this particular movie, because I freaking adore SHAUN OF THE DEAD. It's still my favorite of the Cornetto Trilogy and it's just a great movie. I would much rather SHAUN OF THE DEAD be my daughter's first R movie, to be honest. Nothing against SOUTH PARK - it's utterly brilliant - but SHAUN would be more my speed when it comes to sharing with my kid. It's smart, funny, thrilling, and has more to say than most regular movies, never mind most horror films. It's a great exploration of relationships - between friends, between partners, and it understands those binding connections that can push us forward or hold us back. All of Edgar Wright's movies are about that tenuous bond, and the reason he's such a great filmmaker is that he explores those bonds in such a fresh, enjoyable way.
As far as zombie movies go, SHAUN OF THE DEAD is not chock-full of gore; although there are some particularly gruesome moments most are played so over-the-top that I can't imagine anyone being frightened by them. The most intense moment of the movie is when Shaun has to dispatch his zombie mother, and it's meant to be. It's a scene that isn't played for laughs, and it's appropriately uncomfortable. Considering the context, this is probably the most difficult scene for kids to watch, and I wouldn't blame them for turning away. But I think SHAUN is a great gateway horror movie for kids, especially kids wanting to get away from PG-13 horror. It's fun, serious when appropriate, and has a lot to say. It really all depends on your child's gore threshold is, but considering that the movie's not terribly gory until it needs to be, I think it's a good movie if you think your child can handle it.
EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN
Wait, what? Yeah, you read me correctly. You want to introduce your kids to the joys of moviemaking, physical comedy, and gore effects work? Look no further. Granted, this one's more for the guys. Bruce Campbell's physical performance alone would get most kids laughing their heads off, and the gore is so deliriously above and beyond that there's no way anyone could take it seriously. Mind you, this is the sequel, not the original. The original is still pretty scary, and the remake is probably far too intense. But for older kids, I don't think I'd hesitate to show them this movie if they wanted to see an EVIL DEAD movie.
The innovarive camera work is a must for any kid interested in moviemaking. EVIL DEAD 2 is so punk rock - Raimi throws everything into it, and has such a playful, try-anything sense of direction that you just have to sit back and admire it. If there are kids sensitive to gore, obviously this isn't the movie to show them, but for a kid who is curious about the horror genre, you almost have to show them EVIL DEAD 2. Considering the intensity of some horror movies, EVIL DEAD 2 seems almost whimsical. There is such a sense of joy in it that I can't imagine anyone being truly scared by it, espeically if the parents preface it with the appropriate context.
THE BLUES BROTHERS
Barring the language, BLUES BROTHERS would probably be rated PG-13 today. There are funnier comedies from that heyday in the 1970s, but I don't think many of them come close to the joy that THE BLUES BROTHERS has. The musical numbers are terrific, Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi are at the peak of their careers, and John Landis is playful amidst all the destruction and music. The 1970s were terrific for comedy, as most of us growing up during those years can attest, and ANIMAL HOUSE was a cable staple for me once we got it and I could sneak away and watch it. But if you're a parent and want to introduce your kids to a fun movie that won't stress them out, you can't really go wrong with THE BLUES BROTHERS.
The explicit sex of many of those other 1970s comedies is probably prohibitive to most parents, and it fascinates me about how our society approaches sex as opposed to violence in films. There's barely any sex in THE BLUES BROTHERS, but ANIMAL HOUSE is something else entirely, and definitely not kid-friendly. It still seems to me that filmmakers got away with more in the 1970s than today - our Puritan nature has seemingly gotten the better of us. Sex is still filthy to mainstream America when it comes to movies. It's too encoded in our American DNA to change at this point; it will take many years, if it's ever going to happen. I think it's more due to the uncomfortablility of the parents as opposed to the kids, who have likely heard all about it by the time they reach 10. Still, every child is different, and how kids approach the subject is entirely up to their parents.
STAND BY ME and I DECLARE WAR
STAND BY ME is probably one of the most honest movies about childhood ever made, and the fact that it's rated R has always bugged me. Again, this movie is more for the guys. These are quintessential male experiences, although I think there's plenty to enjoy and learn from STAND BY ME from both boys and girls. This is a movie about friendship, about growing older, and that first loss of innocence where a child learns that the world isn't for you, or against you, but is simply indifferent to you. To make your place in the world is on you alone, and all the past experiences and traumas won't change that. You either swim against the current, or drown. It's a pretty harsh message for kids, perhaps, but it's true, and real, and it's presented in such a nostalgic manner that I think kids will embrace and understand it.
The language of STAND BY ME is raw. But it's nothing that most kids don't already say. Perhaps my childhood was different than many others, but when my parents weren't around? I cussed like a sailor. I blame JAWS for that a bit; when I first saw it in 1975 I remember being taken by the language in it, and thinking that's how real men talk. And I've never really broken myself of that habit; you should hear the invectives that come out of me in traffic. It's children acting like men, posturing for their age, and it's completely in character with how they're supposed to talk. It's funny; my daughter absolutely will not cuss. I've never heard her even slip something out. But I wonder what she's like when I'm not around, and I wouldn't be surprised if she's picked up that bad habit from her old man.
Like STAND BY ME, the kids in I DECLARE WAR don't hold back either when it comes to language. They say what they think, and also like STAND BY ME these are kids testing the boundaries of adulthood, trying on different postures and costumes, seeing if it fits them as a person. I DECLARE WAR is a great movie for kids to see precisely because it gets childhood so intrinsically right; I doubt there's anything in the movie that kids won't recognize in themselves. I've read a review about how the violence in the movie is almost morally reprehensible, and I wonder if this person saw the same movie. Kids think like this. They play like this. I played like this. In play is how kids test their relationships, and how they figure out their place. There are natural leaders who can't function without someone following their moves. There are kids who have their whole self-worth wrapped up in how other kids perceive them. And there are even kids trying to understand the opposite sex and all the uncertainty that comes with them, and they do it through play.
I don't have a beef with I DECLARE WAR's rating - they certainly drop enough F-bombs to warrant it - but if there's ever a movie for kids and parents to bond with, it's this one. I DECLARE WAR shows kids not as the little angels we all pretend our kids are, but as actual functioning human beings who are still trying to figure out how to navigate in this complicated world, sticking their big toe in the waters of adulthood, and wondering when they'll take that leap. Adulthood isn't about being thrown into the deep end of the pool; it's slowly walking into the shallow end, as the water closes over your ankles, then knees, and next thing you know, you're swimming. It's a crude metaphor, but that's how it is. At some point you look back and wonder how you swam out so far. I DECLARE WAR is about those tentative steps, and, I feel, totally appropriate for parents to share with their kids.
These are just a few, of course. Everyone's child is different, and every parent is different in how much reality they want to expose their children to. The parent is always the best judge on what their child can handle. If you want your child's first R rated movie experience to be under your supervision, then these are some films I recommend. For many, it's probably already too late - your kid has already beaten you to the punch. Nothing to be done about that. But for parents wanting to find some more adult fare to share with their children, these films are a good place to start. Thanks for reading.