In the last decade society has experienced an enormous upheaval with technology and the effect of that on people and their social relationships has also changed drastically. In Men, Women & Children we take a stark look at the interactions between parents and their kids and how the digital age is both a help and a hindrance to the family ties.
Our introduction is a scene of the space probe Voyager 1 drifting in space as our narrator (Emma Thompson) describes its contents and how it is an attempt at communicating with an alien species somewhere out in the universe. There’s a small tinge of irony that with all that technology we shot off into the blackness hoping to be able to share ourselves with another life form yet back on Earth we still struggle to communicate and understand each other. One by one we are introduced to seven different families and we see things from both the parents and the teenagers’ point of view. The sexually frustrated and bored married couple Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler, Rosemarie Dewitt respectively) and their pornography addicted son Chris (Travis Tope). The recently divorced Kent Mooney (Dean Norris) and his son Tim (Ansel Elgort) who goes from being the high school football hero to the bullied outcast when he decides to quit the team. The overbearing and overprotective Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner) and her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) who struggles to have any sort of normal social life due to her mother constantly checking every form of her online presence. The single mum Donna Clint (Judy Greer) a failed actress who now invests all her energy into her daughter Hannah’s (Olivia Crocicchia) acting/modelling career. Cheerleader Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris) who resorts to anorexia to try to fit in and be liked and accepted. What we’re shown is a depicted glimpse of their private lives and the various highs and lows that they come upon.
Director Jason Reitman (of Juno, Thank You For Smoking and Up In The Air fame) has teamed up with Erin Cressida Wilson to adapt the novel by Chad Kultgen of the same name into this film. Reitman manages to bring an all-too-real range of subjects and issues to the screen. With a skillful balance of both seriousness and humor which enables the viewer to feel a sense of empathy with each of the characters. You’d be hard pressed to find a single one in this film that we don’t see reflected either in ourselves or in our family or friends. Depression and mental illness, anorexia and eating disorders, addiction to pornography or to video games, underage sex, peer pressure, bullying, obsession with celebrity, and sexting are some of what our teenagers face. Whilst the parents stare down the barrel of coping with single parenthood, managing and being responsible for children’s online presence, grappling with new technology and not only how it works but the legality of it all. Surprisingly with such a large ensemble cast and variety of performances, this film does a brilliant job of spreading itself fairly evenly across all of them. You rarely get the sense of focusing too much on any one particular character or subject matter. Just when you begin to settle in with one story we move back to another and there is some chopping and changing going on which helps to keep the pace of the film consistently moving, rather than getting bogged down. Also to Reitman’s credit the stories of the parents run parallel to that of their children. Even though there seems to be an ever widening gap between the generations, it’s amusing and heartening to see that the struggles of the parents are just as difficult to manage as those of the children.
As briefly touched on before, the cast is sizeable, but out of the lineup only two are what could be classed as heavy hitting in both Adam Sandler and Jennifer Garner. Sandler steps quite away from his OTT comedy style in this and I still find it difficult to take him seriously in dramatic roles, thankfully though his screen time isn’t excessive so the bite size portions we got of him were palatable. Garner manages to lift the stakes and her performance is outstanding. On several occasions I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to hate or love her overbearing Patricia and her incessant censoring of her daughter’s online presence as a means of protection. Trying to determine whether she’s the craziest or the most sensible parent is half the fun. Out of our younger stars, most people ought to be familiar with Ansel Elgort after getting some rave reviews from his previous films The Fault In Our Stars and also Divergent. It’s Elgort’s performance that is riveting, as the increasingly withdrawn and struggling Tim. Trying to cope with his mother leaving him and his father, as well as feeling an overwhelming sense of pointlessness to life, when he takes a leap of faith to befriend Brandy (Devers). These two characters then become the main over-arching relationship as we see a relationship grow not out of physical desire but a more pure yearning for acceptance. Devers is also wonderful, and often channels a little Ellen Page a la Juno with some snappy retorts to her overly protective mother, rather than loud rash outbursts. I have to say I wouldn’t have nearly as much patience and probably attempted to run away from home being under that style of parenting. But the chemistry and interactions between Elgort and Devers is believable and charming and in the end provides the fuel of hope.
There’s such an enormous range of real life issues that are covered in this film, that it almost feels like Reitman has not held back. It’s fortunate however that he can provide the occasional light hearted or subtle comedic drop in the mix to shake things up a little and not allow the story to sink too deeply into seriousness. It’s possibly a little ambitious to have so many characters in this film but he has managed to deliver a well-rounded ensemble cast that feel relatively authentic in their roles. I would dare viewers to try to walk away from this film without contemplating the relationships in their life both with family and friends and how technology has both helped and hindered those relationships.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 119 minutes
Men, Women & Children is out now through Paramount Pictures