Alt cinema for big kids: The Finishers

Julian is a 17-year-old boy born with cerebral palsy and living with his family in the mountains of France. Over the years his father, an under-employed former triathlete, has become woefully distant and disconnected from his son. Inspired by media coverage of a father-son team in the US, Julian hatches a plan to sign up (and convince his dad) to compete in the Ironman France competition together.

The title gives a pretty big clue to the unfolding of the plot but don't let the seemingly formulaic story turn you away. Is it sentimental? Yes it is. And inspiring. The cinematography is stunning and the movie has so much heart; it's a Rocky-esque plot enlivened with the themes of independence, dependence, connection, and the dynamics of father-son and mother-son relationships. We all loved it. (And I couldn't help but think of the real-life Hoyt father-son marathon team back in our hometown Boston; in fact I'm certain it's their photo that flashes on the screen when Julian is researching this idea.) This film has had limited release so far but keep your eyes open for it and catch it if/when you can. In the meantime, here's a little taste:

  • Here's a Variety review of The Finishers
  • And the Sydney Morning Herald review
  • Received 86% on Rotten Tomatoes 
  • Rated: PG in Australia
  • Recommended for families with older kids and teens. Mild language and little swearing.
  • You should know: French dialogue, subtitled in English. The concluding scenes of the movie were filmed during the Ironman France competition in Nice. 

Harrowing tales of adventure


I wouldn't necessarily say that it's easier to find things to do with my girls, but they will watch Steel Magnolias with me as many times as I want. And then we quote the movie together -- because we are Southern women and snarky-ness is embedded deep within our souls.

Lately, however, Parker and I have been having a great time watching a new-to-us series on Netflix called I Shouldn't Be Alive.  These human survival stories are all about fighting natural elements, persevering through hardship, and glorying in the triumph of the human spirit. Aside from being an interesting watch, they have sparked a number of conversations about what we would do in similar situations (which is a nice break from how we would prepare for the zombie apocalypse). Recently we've seen "Nightmare on the Mountain," which follows an 18-year-old boy who is attacked by a grizzly bear while hunting, and "Boys Adrift" -- an excruciating story of two teenage boys stuck at sea for six days in a tiny rowboat. The episodes do contain a bit of gore (okay, a lot in the case of the grizzly bear), and one of the boys in the boat contemplates suicide -- so exercise some caution with younger kids. But overall, they are good, clean fun. Well, fun and sorta stressful.

What about you guys? Any boy-ish shows you can recommend?

Parker also was really affected by Blackfish, a documentary on the captivity of killer whales. He swears he will never visit Seaworld (or a zoo) again.

Alternative cinema for big kids: The Shop Around the Corner

Oh, have I got a gem for you today. Have you seen it? The Shop Around the Corner is a terrific 1940 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Maureen Sullavan.  Directed by Hungarian Ernst Lubitch while he was in exile from his country, it feels like a sweet tribute to the ordinary life whose loss he must have been mourning. I can't help imagining what an enjoyable oasis of a movie it was, there in the dark days of WWII.  It was based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie and in turn inspired the movies In the Good Old Summertime (a 1949 musical starring Judy Garland) and the 1998 romantic comedy You've Got Mail (in fact, remember how Meg Ryan's book store was even called The Shop Around the Corner?) as well as the musical She Loves Me

Budapest store clerk Alfred and newly hired shopgirl Clara despise each other almost at first sight, not realizing they are secretly falling in love with each other as mysterious penpals. That's not a spoiler; it's pretty obvious from the start (and if you've already seen You've Got Mail you know that part already anyway) but the sweet story and its multiple subplots and characters in the little universe of the Hungarian shop keep the film moving along in an engaging way. And its themes of loneliness and heartache are lightened by many doses of comic relief. Maddy and I watched it together a few weekends ago when the boys were both gone and we both loved it (but I think the boys would enjoyed it, too).

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Admittedly, we're not the first ones to love it. It's listed on Time's list of all-time top 100 movies among many more favorites lists. Film critic Pauline Kael said that The Shop Around the Corner is "as close to perfection as a movie made by mortals is ever likely to be" and called it "an airy wonder with steel underpinnings" (via this essay).

The Shop Around the Corner is not rated but I'm fairly certain it would get a PG. (See the parent guide here.)

  • Received 100% on Rotten Tomatoes
  • Available on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.
  • Probably for ages 10 and up (but check the parent guide, above)
  • If you loved You've Got Mail or It's a Wonderful Life, this one's for you
  • Fun fact: "To make sure his film was stripped of the glamor usually associated with him, Lubitsch went to such lengths as ordering that a dress Sullavan had purchased off the rack for $1.98 be left in the sun to bleach and altered to fit poorly" (via IMBD)
  • And, hey, if you have a nice stretch of time, why not turn it into a marathon of all three movies--The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, and You've Got Mail

Alternative cinema for big kids: Wadjda

Meet Wadjda. 

She's a spunky, smart, enterprising 10-year-old Saudi Arabian girl living in Riyadh who has her eye on a green bicycle at the shop. 


Much to her dismay, she can't convince her mother or father to purchase it; bicycles are considered unseemly, a bit scandalous, and even damaging for a girl ("you won't be able to have children if you ride a bike!" she's told). So she decides to take fate into her own hands and enter the Koran recitation contest at school that offers a cash prize with enough to get the bike.

Wadjda delighted me. If you haven't seen it yet, you are in for a treat. The Guardian called it "a rebel yell with a spoonful of sugar" and that's about right. It has a sweetness to it while gently pushing the envelope for opportunities for girls in Saudi Arabia. And I was fascinated by the window into daily life in Riyadh. Wadjda deftly navigated the themes of cultural beliefs & practices, family relationships, faith, and social change, reflecting some of the nuance and complexity of these issues rather than going for a heavy-handed approach.

It's also a movie of firsts: the first feature film made in Saudi Arabia and the first film ever made by a Saudi female filmmaker. In fact, since it is illegal there for men and women to work in public together, director Haifaa al Mansour had to communicate with the crew through phones and radio from inside a van.  (For more about Haifaa al Mansour's experience directing the movie and her approach to gradual change within Saudi Arabia, listen to this interview with the Guardian and this one with NPR.)

Wadjda (rated PG)  is available on iTunes and Netflix. 

  • I loved it. Highly recommended and one of my favorite recent film finds.
  • Recommended for: ages 10 and up, especially those who are curious about other cultures and about children around the world--and those who don't mind reading captions to keep up with the story.
  • You should know: You may have to explain a bit about Muslim culture and, specifically, why Wadjda's father is considering marrying another woman. There's also some very mild innuendo that will go right over most kids' heads. (As always, if you have any reservations or questions, see it first before showing your kids.)

Hard candy Christmas

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Last year I introduced my kids to Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas, which, by the way, is one of the finest Christmas songs of all times. You might have thought my crew of millennials would have turned their noses up at Dolly's work, but no . . . they took to singing it everywhere they went, loudly, often in harmony. Jordan downloaded the piano music, and we stood around the piano belting out "Oh, I'll be FINE and DANDY, Lord it's like a hard candy Christmas!" We'd make serious faces while singing about getting away or losing some weight, and then smirk about getting drunk on apple wine. But that refrain: "I'm barely getting through tomorrow / but still I won't let /  sorrow bring me way down," really got us somewhere deep in our gut.

The funny thing is that my kids know absolutely nothing about a hard candy Christmas -- that is, a Christmas when they might have only received a penny bag of candy. But really, Dolly's song is all about acknowledging the trials and inconveniences and frustrations of life and choosing happiness anyway -- and there's something universal and hopeful about that sentiment. And just singing it made us feel soulful and maybe even a little more compassionate towards those around us.

Monday's e-mail from my French-missionary-daughter reminded me of the hope of the Christmas season. Here's a bit of what she wrote:

Someone that I love once told me that they loved Christmas because they liked how we take the darkest, gloomiest, coldest time of the year and brighten it up with twinkling lights and hot chocolate and gingerbread. I love that too. When I walk down the FREEZING streets of Chalon at night, it doesn't seem so sad and cold when you see red and green lights strung from all the balconies. These tiny lights can brighten up a whole night. 

We always talk about Jesus Christ being the light of the world. As a missionary, I've seen very clearly how the light of the gospel can illuminate an entire person's life. I know that is what Christ does for people. He lifts us up, he brightens our lives. 

So, yes -- she's a keeper. And, yes, we are all wondering about this person she loves who is handy with twinkling lights and gingerbread. My sister is hoping that it's her, but she's a scrooge so I'm pretty sure she's wrong. But I'm also thinking that if my barely 20-year-old daughter can find joy this Christmas in the frigid streets of Chalon, then certainly we can do our part here. We're starting with french toast and working up our courage from there.

What about you? Any hopeful light-spreading this season?




The Brothers Green

If you have teenagers, chances are you've heard about the Green brothers, John and Hank.  After all, they do have over 500,000,000 (yes, that's 500 million) combined views on their projects so even my shoddy statistical reasoning leads me to think some (or most?) of you have probably come under the Green spell. But if not, you're in for a treat for you and your kids. 

John Green is a popular YA author whose most recent book, The Fault in Our Stars, was both a critical and popular cross-over hit that is being made into a movie. (I think Maddy just read it again for the third time, actually; we suggest it for 15+ since it has some mature themes and a bit of language.) 

Hank Green is an entrepreneur, musician, and vlogger who created the Lizzie Bennet Diaries series, a modern-day adaptation of Pride & Prejudice we mentioned in our weekly Gems a few months back (and it went on to win an Emmy, you guys!).

Now he's back with a new interactive series called Emma Approved based on, you guessed it, Jane Austen's Emma with the modern-day Emma re-imagined as a "bold, smart, idealistic, and audacious young female entrepreneur in life coaching and matchmaking." There's a youtube channel that airs the video episodes and Emma also tweets, has a Facebook page, and a Tumblr. Here's the first episode:

The two brothers also have a hilarious Vlogbrothers channel on YouTube where they leave video messages to each other several times a week and entertain the rest of us in the meantime with their smart, nerdy-cool, fast-paced dialogue on whatever they're thinking about at the time--science, health insurance, maps, animals who stopped sporting events, jokes, etc. For your Monday entertainment,  please enjoy one of Hank's joke challenges:

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May you build a ladder to the stars

When we first arrived here last year, we came to an empty house. Greg had rented a few pieces to hold us over--a table and chairs, two sofas, and comfy beds--but really we were a bare bones operation. After the rushrushrush of selling the house, packing up, driving across the country, and booking visits with as many friends and family as we could before we left the continent...suddenly all that busy-ness came to a screeching halt and we had absolutely empty calendars and six weeks before school started.

For the first few days, it was novel. We were really tired and spent the time filling up on some rest and getting that fuzzy travel feeling out of our heads. But after that we had to go through a kind of busy detox.  My internal odometer was at odds with our new peaceful pace. It took a while to get it out of my system.  I had this vague feeling I should be somewhere and that we should be doing things, filling our days with errands and motion to justify our existence. The kids seemed to feel it, too, and got cranky and flopped around, sighing about the empty house, empty life.

[After a few days, we got into the rhythm of it, as though we had come out on the other side of a chattering detox. It felt really good. Different things grow in that kind of space--a different kind of listening and creativity, time to really pay attention, think, and look. A different kind of self discipline. It was a lovely change.]

But that's not what this post is about. No, this is more of a fangirl post.


This might sound utterly pathetic (I know it does) but do you know who accompanied us through those weeks? The Bravermans. Yes, the fictional tv clan from the show Parenthood. We watched an episode (or two) every day, starting with the first season and plowing on through until we were caught up. They were our vicarious family friends at a time when we didn't have anyone but ourselves. We were more than a little homesick for those deliciously chaotic Sunday multi-family dinners of our own that we had left behind (oh, the Braverman long outdoor table! Would we ever fill our table that way again?). We even cried cathartic tears along with them. We sang along to the theme song (Bob Dylan's Forever Young) at full volume, an anthem and prayer sung in the midst of this teen-seismic move and all its unknowns:

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young.
May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young

A year later, we have schedules and friends and busyness and lessons and furniture and much less time to just sit around together. It's a case of both see-everything-works-out-just-fine and be-careful-what-you-wish-for. The Bravermans no longer serve as placeholders for future friends and have retreated like all good imaginary friends at the end of their run. Last week found me singing along during the opening credits of the new season of Parenthood with a tiny lump in my throat, a bit nostalgic for those simple, echo-y empty house days when our world boiled down to just each other for six weeks or so. Well, us and the Bravermans.

- I couldn't resist this Forever Young locket as a special gift for Maddy last Christmas. I think it makes a great graduation, birthday, Bat Mitzvah, quinceanera, or Christmas present.

- Parenthood has a terrific soundtrack.  They know their tunes, those folks.

- What shows are you watching this season? Do have a family show you all watch together? Have you had a certain touchstone show/movie/book that came along at the right time?