Plot: Steven Lidz is the son of Sid (John Turturro), an inventor. He is a distracted man who “believes in documentation” and empirical data. Steven is closer to his warm-hearted mother, the emotional center of the family. When she becomes ill, he goes to live with his father’s two brothers (Michael Richards and Maury Chaikin), both borderline (and sometimes more than borderline) mentally ill. They are hoarders, with huge piles of newspapers filling every bit of available floor space, paranoid, telling him there are only eight trustworthy people in the world (the other four have been killed), and delusional. But they love Steven very much, and see in him a strength and ability to be great that he finds very comforting. They rename him “Franz” because they think it suits him better than Steven.
Franz picks up some of his uncles’ peculiarities (singing the “Internationale” in school while the other kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance), but also draws strength from what they tell him. They encourage him to connect to his heritage by studying for his bar mitzvah. And his uncle’s fascination with objects inspires him to hold on to a bit of his mother by collecting small items that make him feel close to her. When she dies, he retrieves hours of “documentation” (film of experiments and family home movies) from the garbage. He and his father watch them together, and, with the uncles, begin to document the family again.
Discussion: Based on the autobiographical novel by sportwriter Franz Lidz (he kept the name his uncles bestowed on him), this is a quietly moving story of a boy growing up in the midst of incomprehensible loss. Perhaps it is the very incomprehensibility of it all that makes his uncles seem understandable by comparison. Or perhaps they just have a less frightening way of being impossible to understand. To Steven, they are almost like children, the way they play with the “high-bouncers” from the collection of lost rubber balls that “hold the sounds of the children who played with them.” He makes pancakes for them the way his mother made pancakes for him and his sister. He protects them from the landlord who wants to see them evicted. They have time for him, which his parents don’t. They have answers for him, which no one else does. They see him as “Franz” and “Franz” is who he decides he wants to be.
This is a movie about loss, but more than that it is a movie about families, and the acceptance of family members who are not always easy to understand. This includes Sid as well as the uncles.
The movie raises the question of faith. Sid is relentlessly scientific and is furious that his brothers have encouraged Franz to study Judaism. He tells them that “religion is a crutch, only cripples need crutches.” But Franz’s mother, dying, says maybe Franz is right.
Franz’s attitude toward his uncles is very sympathetic, even protective. But Franz and his friend Ash play a prank on Uncle Danny, slipping him a note that sends his paranoia into overdrive. Danny commits himself, and when Franz admits that he wrote the note, Danny tells him it is all right, that it made it possible for him to get help.
Questions for Kids:
· Why does Steven give up instead of giving his speech?
· Why does Steven decide to go live with his uncles? Why do his parents let him?
· Why do Sid and his brothers have different ideas about religion?
· What does “documentation” mean, and why is it important here?
· What does Sid mean by an “undisciplined mind”?
Connections: This was the first feature film directed by actress Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall” and “Father of the Bride”).
Activities: Older kids, particularly those familiar with Lidz’ sports writing, may want to read the book. Those who are not familiar with the Bar Mitzvah ceremony may enjoy attending one.