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. 

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).

shop around the corner 6.jpg

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.)

Alt cinema picks just for you!

When I'm feeling the itch to escape the burbs and need access to some insta-culture, I often choose to drive into town to a fabulous little theater that specializes in independent films (River Oaks Theatre for any locals). It's a bit of a drive, but, as a bonus, the shopping center also boasts one of the BEST macaron bakeries in town -- so there's THAT.

Here's two films I can whole heartedly recommend:


Several months ago (as in five) I saw Fill the Void, a film about an Orthodox Hassidic family from Tel Aviv. The narrative focuses primarily on the women, particularly an 18 year old girl who is considering marriage within an extremely conservative and duty-bound culture. The story is interesting, but the insight into Hassidic culture is spectacular. The clothes, the food, the rules -- all of it made for an anxious and beautiful look at duty to family, personal choice, and the downright uncertainty of life. Several weeks after seeing the film I was in New York and ended up staying in Brooklyn, quite near an Hassidic neighborhood. I tried my best not to stare, but I have to admit I'm fascinated. NPR has a great review of the film (with some information on the director, Rama Burshtein) here. Available on iTunes or Amazon. [Note: This movie would be good for teens, although I suspect girls would like it more than boys.]


Just last weekend I drug my sister back downtown to see Philomena (see the trailer here).  When we arrived it was actually sold out (imagine them not holding a ticket for me!), but we persevered and waited until the later show. Guys, it was completely worth the wait. Judi Dench plays an older Irish woman whose son was put up for adoption in the early 1950s. She actually gave birth in a small convent that took in unwed mothers, charging them four years of hard labor in return for room and board. In addition, the convent adopted the babies out (for a sum) to families in America. It's all about shame, choice, forgiveness, religion, and  . . . well . . . of course the resiliency of the human spirit. Judi Dench is incredible. I'd really like to take Rebecca back to see the film, to give her a taste of what life was like for women in 1950. Be aware that there is some explicit language, although it's not used gratuitously (meaning the objects of the profanity dearly deserved the eptithets). There are also some sexual references (Philomena is very forthright about sexuality), so this would definitely be more for an older teen. And this one is still in theaters, so go forth boldly, with popcorn and junior mints!

Cinema for big kids: Holiday edition

By the time this posts, I'll (hopefully) be in the air on the lonnnnng but happy flight home for the holidays. But before I go, a quick post to celebrate holiday movies, second only to music in setting my Christmas barometer to "festive." Here's a list of holiday films (and some tv episodes)--obvious and maybe not-so-obvious--to consider for your holiday viewing this year:

  • Elf. (2003) Of course.
  • It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Of course. Every single year. Buffalo girls won't you come out tonight?
  • John Denver and The Muppets--A Christmas Together (1979): A must-see Muppet Christmas tv episode. Classic--we also love the soundtrack from this one.
  • Little Women (any version but I like the 1994 one with Claire Danes and Wynona Ryder and Christian Bale(!) for its winter scenes). Sure, it's not a Christmas movie per se but the holiday scenes are so evocative! 
  • The Bishop's Wife (1947): A Bishop prays for guidance and Cary Grant appears as the Angel Dudley. Trailer here
  • Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): How can you resist Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas?" 
  • A Christmas Story (1983): Ralphie's Christmas quest for a Red Ryder BB gun, his dad's leg lamp, the tongue on the icy flagpole. (Some language; we learned through experience this one isn't really for the younger end of the spectrum.)
  • The Bells of St. Mary's (1945): Not technically a Christmas movie but it contains one of my all-time favorite Christmas nativity scenes:
  • Holiday Inn (1942): Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire. Need I say more?
  • White Christmas (1954): Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney come together to save a Vermont Inn with music. 
  • Sleepless in Seattle (1993): Not a Christmas movie either but some of the crucial scenes happen on Christmas Eve and can you really go wrong with Nora Ephron?
  • Home Alone (1990): Christmas overload! 
  • Little House on the Prairie (1974): What better way to catch the Christmas spirit than joining the Ingalls in their Christmas at Plum Creek episode (even if you're a little distracted by all the leaves on the trees and bushes in December in  "Minnesota")
  • The Waltons original tv pilot movie (1971): The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. This one's for you, Sarah:

Enjoy! Now, what am I missing? What are your holiday movie favorites?

Alt cinema for big kids: Opal Dream


In Opal Dream, Kellyanne Williamson is a young girl with a vivid imagination living with her family in an opal mining town in South Australia. When her two imaginary friends, Pobby and Dingan, go missing, the mysterious sickness that she soon suffers has her older brother Ashmol on a search to find the invisible pair for her.

At the same time, Kellyanne and Ashmol's dad is chasing dreams of hitting it big in the opal mines. He is caught accidentally straying onto another miner's turf and assumed to be "ratting," looking for opals on another's territory.  Thereafter the family faces harassment over it in their small town.  

Based on the Ben Rice novella Pobby and Dingan, this bittersweet family film has a simple fable-like quality, the story an allegory for the loss of childhood. It also grants an interesting view of Australian life in the mining region. Might be a bit too sweet for some (as in more jaded older teens?). Good for 10+ or so. 

. . . 

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Rating: PG (some occasional language and tense moments of bullying.) 
Themes: siblings, bullying, imagination, compassion, faith, family loyalty, other cultures
Year: 2006
Rotten Tomatoes score: 70%
 Available on iTunes to rent or buy 

Interesting tidbit: the original movie had a different ending; a last-minute cut was made against the wishes of the director because the financiers thought it would have better success at the box office with a different ending. 

(Thanks to my aunt Susie, who mentioned this film recently. It was a good find!)

Looking for some more off-the-beaten-path options? Here are our other Nest & Launch alternative cinema titles so far: 
 Children of Heaven
Les Choristes


Alternative cinema for big kids, part two

Jordan came home on Saturday! We were on our way to the airport (in a veritable monsoon) when we got a call from her that Hobby Airport in Houston had closed due to weather, and she had been diverted to Midland. Midland is a good 450 miles from us, so she was left to the mercy of the airlines. She eventually made it to Houston around one in the morning. We scooped her up, threw her in the truck, and brought her home. I breathed a sigh of relief to have all of my kids under my roof and I'm considering holding her hostage in the attic.

Along with Jordan came a whole load of stuff that had previously been stuffed into her tiny dorm room -- including a pretty decent movie collection. Two of our family's favorite movies went away to college with Jordan, and we're happy to have them back as well.  


The first is Lagaan (2001) - an Indian musical depicting a farming village's conflict with British rule (meaning a group of rag-tag farmers challenge the Brits to a cricket match to settle a tax dispute). There is a handsome hero, a beautiful maiden, and the emotional charge of a community banding together for a common cause. Plus, there's the cricket -- think A League of Own meets Bollywood -- except better. Also, the underdog vs. superpower motif in this movie tugs firmly on your heartstrings. It's so much fun to root for the underdog! Your kids will be on the edge of their seats in the final cricket match. I promise.

Sterling was introduced to this movie in business school, and when he brought home a copy for our then fourth and fifth graders to watch, I was skeptical. The movie is four hours long and subtitled. Really? But the girls loved it and have continued to watch it over the years. As Rebecca and Parker became proficient readers they joined in as well. And get this, Jordan claims to understand the rules of cricket because of this movie. What American girl understands cricket? We've shared it with multiple friends over the years -- everyone has been a fan. 

Buy the DVD here.


And second, Les Choristes (The Chorus, 2004), tells the story of a teacher at a troubled boys school in 1949 in France (this is subtitled as well). Initially the boys are undisciplined and the headmaster is cruel and villainous, but Monsieur Mathieu starts a boys choir as a way of connecting with the students. It's sort of a sophisticated mix of Mr. Holland's Opus and Lean on Me. The music is other-worldly and the young Jean-Baptiste Maunier is superb. My girls saw this movie in their high school (or maybe junior high) French class, and couldn't stop talking about the storyline (and the cute Pierre). Watching this makes me want to hop on the next plane to France. As does eating croissants. Or macarons.  [Note: There are a few isolated incidents of of objectionable language in the movie, which are made more apparent by subtitles, so you may want to preview the film first for younger kids.]

Available on Amazon Instant Video here.
Buy the DVD here.