These are the questions parents most often ask me:
How can a silly comedy and a serious, award-winning drama both get the same grade? How can a movie with no objectionable material get a bad grade? What do the grades mean?
The grade reflects the merits of a movie for its intended audience and within the context of its own aspirations. A B grade means that the movie is likely to be a satisfying experience for the people most likely to want to see it. Just because a movie is not offensive does not mean that it merits 90 minutes of a child's life. Children are as entitled to movies that illuminate, inspire, and entertain, filled with engaging characters and insightful writing and visuals. So are adults.
My reviews aim to give parents the information they need to make a decision about whether a given film is right for their family. Each child's parents have to make that decision based on the child's interests and tolerance of material that is scary or disturbing, based on their own values and each child's stage of development and situation. But parents also need to have some guide to a movie's overall value, and that is why I also assign each film a letter grade and recommended age range. The rating is an attempt to answer one question: Is this movie worth two hours of your family's time?
A: Don't miss it. This one is really worth making a special trip to see! Something special.
B: It may not be on anyone's future list of classics, and parts of it might not be entirely successful, but the acting, script, and/or direction are above average and worth a trip to the theater. If you are a fan of these performers or this genre, it will probably meet your expectations for an enjoyable outing.
C: Average. If you like these actors, or this genre, you will enjoy this movie. But you probably won't consider it one of your favorites. See it at a discount matinee or wait for the video.
D: Below average. There may be some good moments, but there are many more you may find dumb or offensive. If it is on cable and you want to watch something while you fold your laundry, it might be okay for background noise.
F: Really awful. Not just a waste of time but genuinely terrible. Stay away.
Is there really a problem, or are you overreacting?
Literally thousands of studies show that kids are harmed by premature exposure to portrayals of sex, violence, substance abuse, and other inappropriate material. They become less able to feel empathy, more desensitized. They form a distorted view of adult life. As one college student said to me, "My parents pretty much let me watch anything I wanted. At the time I thought it was great, but now I'm sorry. I feel like someone took something from me that I wish I'd been able to keep longer." I was surprised to find that not one of the young people I interviewed while researching my book thought his or her parents had been protective enough.
The boomer generation rebelled against repression, but forgot there is a difference between repression and protection, and threw out the babies with the bathwater. I am not saying we should repress a child's natural curiosity about adult issues and concerns; on the contrary. Some movies provide an exceptionally good context for initiating discussions on these issues. Others, however, do not, and parents can need some help in establishing limits.
Why does it matter? It's only a movie.
Movies are our sagas, our myths, our touchstones, our collective cultural heritage. They illuminate and shape our culture, and they transmit it as well. Think back to when you fell in love: the movies you went to together, the movies you discovered that only the two of you appreciated or hated in just the right way. Think of the way that movies create a cultural language for us: Bogart telling the cop that the Maltese falcon is "the stuff that dreams are made of"; Claude Rains saying, "Round up the usual suspects," or, "I'm shocked ... shocked to find gambling going on in Casablanca"; Gene Kelly singing in the rain; Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, saying, "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!"; or Orson Welles murmuring "Rosebud" as he drops the snow globe.
Movies are one important way that we teach ourselves and our children cultural norms. Movies give kids their first exposure to the world outside the family and school. How do we behave with the opposite sex? How do we behave in the workplace? How do we behave when our parents are not there to tell us what to do? Movies give our children their first glimpse of these worlds, teaching how a couple moves closer to show their attraction, then how a woman holds her head when she wants to be kissed; how people evaluate risk and set their priorities; how people make decisions about work; how people follow their dreams and how they react when they fail.