The term “family movie” tends to evoke eye-rolling and sighs from all but the youngest kids, calling up memories of sugary stories about adorable children, cute pets, and bouncy songs. What it should evoke is a movie like this one, an ambitious, complicated, thoughtful, and meaningful story of fear, loss, love, opera, and basketball.
It is set in a small town near Spokane, Washington, in 1918. A soldier has come home from the war, ill and injured. His parents are devastated, blaming themselves for letting him go. Two German orphans are taken in by the minister, over the objections of neighbors who blame them for the war. The community’s farmers need an expensive new thresher, but they do not have the money. A charismatic new teacher from Boston holds his students spellbound as he lets them listen to an opera on his gramaphone, telling them a little more of its story each day. He also tells them about a new game that has become popular back in Boston, one where the players try to throw the ball into a basket nailed to a post.
All of these stories and more come together like the musical themes in the opera played for the students by the teacher. That opera (created for this movie) is also the story of a mysterious stranger who helps a small village triumph over challenges that at first divide and then unite them.
The movie’s low budget shows, but the passion and commitment that went into making it are even more evident. Some of the situations may sound formulaic — no one thinks that the German kids will be unable to prove their value to the community or that there won’t be some surprises in the big game — but the appeal of the characters and the integrity of the production hold the interest of the audience. Peter Coyote is fine as the teacher who must grapple with the demons of his own past as he tries to help his students. Karen Allen, best known for her role in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is very moving as the loving mother who loses her son and then almost loses her husband to isolation and guilt. Her expressions as she listens to the music and as she begins to speak about what she wants are eloquent beyond words.
Parents should know that this movie includes brief flashbacks to WWI battle scenes, including the death of civilians. A character has an amputated leg and another has epilepsy. There are sad deaths. There are also intense scenes of prejudice and cruelty that may be upsetting to children.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way it shows how basketball was played in its earliest days, when the people who shoot baskets were called “goal tossers.” How has it changed? How do you think that the way we play games like basketball and baseball may change in the future? Think about the sacrifices made by Brigitta and by Martin. What led them to make those choices? Did they get what they were hoping for? Why was it hard for some people in the community to accept Helmut and Brigitta? Which characters did not, and why? Why was the story of “The Basket” like what was going on in the town? How can stories help change the way we see the world?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Rigoletto.” Although it shares the name of a famous real-life opera, its story, about a girl who must become the maid of a wealthy, mysterious, and disfigured stranger, is very different.