There is a golden boy, young, handsome, a champion golfer, and he wins the heart of Adele (Charlize Theron), the most beautiful debutante in Georgia. His roots in Savannah are so deep that even his name seems spelled with a Southern accent — Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon). Then he goes off to fight in World War I, and comes home “confused, broken, and unable to face a return to a hero’s welcome.” He does not speak to Adele or see any of his old friends and he does not play golf for more than 10 years. And then Adele needs him to play the two greatest golfers in the world at an exhibition match that can keep her from bankruptcy. A mysterious stranger named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) arrives to give Junuh the guidance he needs to get back in the game.
Your ability to appreciate this movie will depend on your tolerance for larger-than life stories with allegorical, even epical, overtones. Some people will find it simplistic and clichéd. They will see Bagger Vance’s relationship with Junuh as too much like having Yoda coach Luke Skywalker on whether he should use an iron to get out of the sandtrap. Vance tells Junuh things that will either strike you as wise or fortune-cookie corny, depending on your point of view: “Golf is a game that cannot be won, only played,” “A man’s authentic swing can’t be learned, only remembered,” and “You can’t make the ball go in the hole, you can only let it.” But others, particularly those who have spent some time in the South, will recognize it as not too far off from the way things actually occur in that part of the country, especially on the golf course. They will enjoy the sun-dappled greens and the pleasures of seeing a man find a swing that makes a sound like thunder when it drives the ball.
This movie has a lot in common with what I consider director Robert Redford’s best film, “A River Runs Through It.” Like that one, this story begins with an old man remembering the sport and the setting of his youth, with golf, like fly-fishing, as a metaphor for man’s interaction with nature and fate and even love. But “A River Runs Through It” was more complex and more comfortable with ambiguity. Its message was that a person can love completely without understanding completely. This movie, with its more traditional journey of redemption, is not as wise or moving. But it is a good story, lovingly told, and beautiful to watch.
Parents should know that the movie has a brief but bloody battle scene, brief mild language, brief sexual references, and inexplicit sexual situations. A woman offers to trade a man sex for a favor. She does not go through with it, even though it is clear that she loves him, in fact, probably because she loves him. A man commits suicide (off-camera). Junuh abuses alcohol in an attempt to forget his experiences and his pain.
This is a very good film to help families initiate discussions of important issues, including how we respond when things go badly. One character kills himself when he loses his money. Another says he would rather do nothing than do something beneath his dignity. Junuh tries to make himself feel better by isolating himself and drinking and gambling. But another character insists on paying all of his debts instead of declaring bankruptcy and takes whatever job he can find so he can feed his family. And Adele, a steel magnolia in a series of divine cloche hats, refuses to give up on her father’s dream of a golf resort, showing courage, intelligence, and resilience. Junuh learns to accept the fact that he will never be the naively confident man he was before the war. He can still be someone who will take risks, even though he now knows how painful the consequences can be.
Talk to kids about Bagger Vance. Who is he? Why does he want “$5 guaranteed” instead of a part of the prize? Why does he leave when he does? Why does he tell Junuh to hook and to quit? What does he mean when he advises Junuh to see the field? Why does he leave him alone in the woods? Some families may want to talk about whether a black man would really have been called “sir” and “Mr.” and allowed to sit on a resort’s porch in 1930’s Georgia. Older kids may want to talk about the potential racism inherent in assigning a sort of magical “otherness” to the lone black character.
The movie also shows us the importance of integrity, not just for the community but for ourselves. When a character tells Junuh that one of the best things about golf is that it is the only game in which a character calls a penalty on himself, we know that information is going to be important. Talk to kids about what that means, and why Junuh makes the choice that he does. Ask them why Junuh has to find a way to feel good about himself again before he can return to Adele. And discuss the different approaches of the other golfers, one who makes every shot perfect and one who makes one brilliant shot make up for three terrible ones. Talk with them, too, about how we find our own “authentic swings,” the ones that our hands know before our heads do.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Hoosiers.”