As a traditionalist I prefer to view movies at the theater, but since COVID-19 hit watching films has transformed from the big-screen to my laptop screen. Given the limited number of new releases I thought it would be fun to discuss a series of interesting Netflix picks and their take-away life lessons. I have selected five fascinating flicks that highlight the difficulties with families, parenting, children, and conception. The primary film of discussion is inspired by factual events and the four runners up consist of two true stories and two films that resemble real-life experiences. Let’s get started with our mini monitor montage.
Top Pick: System Crasher (German Foreign Film)
This deeply compelling psychological drama is a must see! True to its title ‘System Crasher’ is a term used to describe out-of-control children whose antisocial behavior is so extreme they are deemed ‘unplaceable’ as they are too young to be admitted to in-treatment programs and too violent to be accepted into group/foster care. In short these severely troubled children render the welfare system uncopiable and literally crash the system. This film is so moving it really deserves a post on its own but not everyone enjoys watching foreign films with subtitles. That said, much like this year’s Oscar Winner Parasite – 5 minutes into the story viewers are so captivated by the drama all subtitles seem to fade away. Set in Germany, the plot centers on nine-year-old problem child Benni (played by Helena Zengel who gives an Oscar worthy performance and is one of the best child actors I have ever seen), an abandoned violent wayward girl who due to her uncontrollable outbursts (with endless bashing and screaming) cannot be placed by social services, which pushes the system and social workers to breaking-point. Directed by Nora Fingscheidt the movie shows what happens when children are neglected and rejected by the very people that are supposed to love and protect them – their parents. As you might have guested the main meaning of this film hinges on the importance of mother/child bonding and why it’s so vital to form functional sustainable relationships with parents and/or others. Attachment vs. Disorganization – although defiant swearing /punching feral-like child Benni resists conforming to the system she also has charming qualities that sympathetically draws-in her case workers Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) and Micha (Albrecht Schuch), who work tirelessly on her behalf. This type of attachment behavior is typically referred to as attack/feigned helplessness. When frightening outbursts do not produce the child’s desired outcome the child learns to become helpless as a survival technique and thus switches from attacking behavior to seductively vulnerable behavior. When neither attachment strategy works the child become emotionally disorganized. It is heartbreaking to see children in this state, and true to form the movie’s ending is so haunting with a terrifying outcome that lingers with audiences for days, especially parents. It’s that disturbing. Not to give too much away, this film is a grim depiction of the makings of a sociopath and the saddest part is, all Benni really wants is to be loved and accepted by one person – her mother. Although Benni appears to be a scary unteachable misfit she’s actually quite resilient, but even the toughest kids crumble if their spirit is broken. On this point, the acting in this film is so gripping and real it’s like watching true-to-life macabre events (reminiscent of film The Florida Project). Just writing about this movie makes me so sad but it’s a weighty story every parent should see. Two Fast Facts: First, System Crasher was inspired by director Fingscheidt’s true-life experience when making a documentary about a refuge for homeless women and witnessed a 14-year-old girl there. When she asked why a child was amongst the adults the social worker responded by saying ‘oh, yes, system crashers, we can take them on their 14th birthday.’ Second, it’s no surprise that after 12-year old Helena Zengel’s stellar performance in System Crasher she was summoned to do the recently released Oscar-caliber film News of the World with Tom Hanks. Watch out for this little dynamo – she is a magnificent breakout star who is raising fast!
Four Runners Up
Lost Girls is the true story based on the bestselling book with the same name written by journalist Robert Kolker who details the still unsolved murders committed by the Long Island Serial Killer (aka Craigslist Killer). This very sad story centers on missing young sex worker Shannan Gilbert who had a habit of finding her clients on Craigslist and her mother’s struggle to find her. This fact-based crime drama opens with Shannon alive and planning to visit her estranged mother Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan). When she no-shows and isn’t heard from her mother starts searching for her. Given Shannan’s morally questionable occupation her disappearance is not prioritized, a typical criticism of many police departments and media outlets when dealing with easily judgmental cases such as offences against prostitutes. The core of the story focuses on Shannon’s mother Mari’s fighting to keep her daughters’ vanishing front page news. Mari does this by rallying support from family members of other missing girls who have met the same fate. Directed by documentarian Liz Garbus the essence of this story highlights the complexity of parental responsibility and the risks faced by children of parents that are themselves at-risk. As the story unfolds it is revealed that Shannon was abandoned by her mother at age 12 years. Placed in foster care as her mother could not cope with her daughter’s bi-polar episodes and still parent her two younger remaining children. This story is very similar to System Crasher in that regard. In short, such narratives like this argue in favor of providing better social services to parents suffering with toxic stressors (depression, poverty, abuse). Since research shows keeping children with their biological parents usually produces the best outcomes over the lifespan, discussions have shifted from fostering children to fostering entire families to minimize risk. Too often our culture engages in victim-shaming and attributes much of the blame to mothers. Since we know mothers (and fathers) are the most important people in children’s lives and their parental presence has incredible influence on children’s choices doesn’t it make sense to buttress those in-need. Most parents, even the inept ones love their children on some level so shouldn’t we support them instead of ignoring them or tearing them down. VIP vs. RIP – the takeaway message of this film is that all people are precious and rather than shield those with power, society should place more value on at-risk individuals; they are the ones that need the most protecting after all, and doing so makes this world a better place for everyone.
Hillbilly Elegy is another true story based on the 2016 memoir of James David (J.D.) Vance about his life and the difficulties growing up in white working-class poverty in Middletown Ohio with an unstable drug-addicted mother (played by Amy Adams). Directed by Ron Howard, this film centers on young victimized J.D. who is largely raised by his aging grandmother (played by Glenn Close). The movie walks viewers through J.D.’s very tumultuous life from childhood to adulthood. Despite the odds it’s nice to see that J.D. grows up to be a successful Yale educated lawyer. This rags-to-riches story, though similar to The Glass Castle, is inspiring to watch. I love heartwarming stories of survival and of those who manage to break the cycle. This film is a bit slow moving and repetitive at times but it also delivers the important message of just how vulnerable children really are. This picture also demonstrates that despite not being able to pick one’s own family such circumstances should not keep individuals stuck. Lineage vs. Pedigree – the bottom line is that there is no doubt we are all shaped by our childhoods and our descents but that does not mean these uncontrollable elements of life have to define us. This film strongly underscores the message that we might not be able to fully escape our family background, but our future personal histories are ours to create. I love when factual movies end by showing the real-life players, and this film does just that.
The Land of Steady Habits is a comedic drama adapted from novelist Ted Thompson’s book of the same name. Directed by Nicole Holofcener, this fictional film has a Woody Allen feel with an interesting spin on mid-life crisis. The film opens with a sad recently divorced and retired single-dad Anders Hill (Ben Mendelson) attempting to redesign a new life now that he has effectively dismantled his old one. With ex-wife Helene (Edie Falco) already dating, Anders is at a bit of loss finding his groove with nothing functioning properly in the bedroom, with friendships, family, or otherwise. Disillusioned as he fumbles through his sudden self-induced middle-aged changes Anders struggles to connect with his own young adult son Preston (Thomas Mann), a recovering alcoholic, meanwhile befriending the neighbor’s troubled pot-smoking substance abusing son Charlie (Charlie Tahan). Throughout the film Anders, who previously led a comfortable life, is now searching for some sort of illusive balance but is met with one blunder after another. Though there are a few surprises in this film the primary take-away is a lesson in self-sabotage. Don’t do it! Stability vs. Volatility – in life most of us want the same things; love, security, peace, partnership, friendship, fun, normalcy… yet instead of maintaining such sacred gifts, we often squander them even though each are very basic and attainable wishes. In doing so we end up denying ourselves the happiness we are seeking. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies purposely sacrificing without any gains and basically making a mess of everything. Just an aside, in this film the story Charlie writes about Laika, the Soviet Space Dog is so moving and deep. It’s what made me like this picture even more.
Private Life is a story about married couple Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) a novelist, and Richard (Paul Giamatti) a theatre director both in their mid-40s living in New York City trying to conceive their first baby via a series of failed IVF cycles. This film directed by Tamara Jenkins, also starring Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch and others is an entertaining well-acted depiction of the struggles faced by couples who put off having children due to career aspiration only to be met with the heartbreaks encountered by having waited too long. The pain of hormone injections coupled with the disappointing non-outcomes along with the deflated hopes associated with donor eggs and adoption make the agony of this story tangible. Yet the atmosphere of the film never drifts too far into awkward territory. This is a very intelligent sophisticated film that deals with uncomfortable truths and lies told about life, conception, timeframes, and the nature of science. The take-away message of this film is that although our social constructs might change and evolve – biology seems to stay the same. Barren vs. Fertile – unfortunately women’s ability to bear children has an expiration date. A difficult reality most women dread, especially those still wanting kids. Though men should be aware that age takes a toll on male virility too, so don’t wait too long if offspring is the plan.
P.S. Given these five films all deal with parenting and family relations in one way or another I could relate to all of them directly or indirectly. Being a parenting researcher I have dealt with many at-risk families and definitely have the biggest heart for parents/children in-need, as demonstrated through the good works of the OHF. I have also experienced growing up in challenging circumstances and having to start over as a lone parent in life, which is never easy even if change is the desired goal. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter problems having my two kids but I love children and did plan to have a third baby, so I do know the disappointment of not having realized that goal. At any rate all the above-mentioned films are worth watching and certainly contain a myriad of life-lessons to reflect on. Thanks also to Rick Delamont for recommending System Crasher – what a movie! Enjoy.