By JOHN MULDERIG, Catholic News Service | Published March 9, 2017
NEW YORK (CNS)—Sound values underlie the conversion story “Before I Fall” (Open Road). But the path toward its positive conclusion takes twists and turns that will give the parents of targeted teens pause in considering whether their kids should travel it.
Early on in the film, its main character, seemingly successful high school student Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch), is killed in a car crash. But instead of this being the end of her tale, it turns out to be just the beginning.
Samantha awakens again on the morning of her last day on earth, a period of time, she soon discovers, that she will be forced to relive over and over until she discerns what she needs to change about her life to escape the cycle. The relationships she has to re-evaluate include those with her trio of closest pals, Lindsay (Halston Sage), Ally (Cynthy Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahirri).
Additionally, she’ll need to re-examine her bond with her shallow boyfriend, Rob (Kian Lawley), her treatment of Kent (Logan Miller), the less glamorous but more caring lad who has loved her from afar since childhood, and her persecution of troubled schoolmate Juliet (Elena Kampouris) whom Samantha and her clique relentlessly torment.
Symptomatic of the problem with director Ry Russo-Young’s adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s 2010 novel for young adults is Samantha’s attitude toward romance and sexuality. This is another area in which her values take a posthumous turn for the better. Yet her starting point on this journey finds her besties celebrating the fact that she is about to lose her virginity, and presenting her with a condom for the occasion.
Together with some of the language in Maria Maggenti’s script, such behavior makes “Before I Fall” a risky proposition for any but grownups.
The time loop conceit inevitably invites comparison with the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day.” But for Catholic moviegoers, at least, Samantha’s experience also can be viewed from a theological perspective as representing a sort of purgatory through which she must pass.
The fact that she not only sees through the illusions that have blinded her in the past but reaches a high level of compassion and altruism fittingly fulfills the goal of that cleansing state. So it’s a shame that other aspects of the movie preclude endorsement for the young people at whom “Before I Fall” is clearly aimed.
The film contains semi-graphic premarital sexual activity, partial nudity, underage drinking, a single use each of profanity and rough language, a mild oath, frequent crude talk and mature references, including to homosexuality. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
“The Shack” (Summit)
NEW YORK (CNS)—“The Shack” (Summit), director Stuart Hazeldine’s screen version of William Paul Young’s best-selling novel, represents a serious effort to tackle the problem of evil from a Christian perspective. As such, it will be welcomed by believers.
While objectionable elements are virtually absent from the film, however, patches of dialogue discounting the value of religion—here implicitly set in opposition to faith broadly speaking—and hinting that God is indifferent to how we worship him mean that impressionable viewers should keep their distance. So, too, does the morally problematic treatment of a dark and long-kept secret.
After his young daughter, Missy (Amelie Eve), is abducted and murdered, previously devout churchgoer Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips (Sam Worthington) has a crisis of faith. But a note from “Papa,” his wife, Nan’s (Radha Mitchell), nickname for God, leads to an encounter with the Trinity near the titular hideout where evidence of Missy’s death was uncovered that alters his perspective.
Octavia Spencer plays an unflappable, warmhearted God the Father, Avraham Aviv Alush a fun-loving Jesus and Sumire a serene Holy Spirit. As Spencer bakes, Sumire gardens and Alush tinkers in his carpentry shed, Worthington learns to see his own tragedy as a spiritual death that offers the prospect of resurrection.
While some may be uncomfortable with the fact that both the Father and the Holy Spirit manifest themselves to the protagonist as women, given that they would be free to do so in whatever guise they chose, this is no real objection—all the more so since Spencer eventually morphs, when it seems advisable, into a paternal Graham Greene.
The narrative’s brief descent from nondenominationalism into outright indifferentism and its suggestion that religion is “too much work” are more substantial defects. While Mack has much to forgive, moreover, he has a shocking crime in his own background that the movie seems to excuse too easily.
Beautiful settings and a sense of humor help to keep the somewhat overlong proceedings from bogging down in sentimentality. But the script, penned by John Fusco, Andrew Lanham and Destin Cretton, takes on too many weighty subjects—from the suffering of innocents to the need for forgiveness—to treat any one of them in a fully satisfying way.
Still, on the whole, this is an intriguing endeavor to accomplish the same goal British poet John Milton set himself in writing his masterpiece, “Paradise Lost,” namely, “to justify the ways of God to men.”
The film contains scenes of domestic violence and mature themes requiring careful discernment. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
“The Great Wall” (Universal)
NEW YORK (CNS)—Those seeking nothing more from a movie than sheer spectacle may be satisfied with this visually interesting but thoroughly implausible action adventure from director Zhang Yimou. Drawn by the wealth they could gain by introducing gunpowder into the West, two medieval European mercenaries (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) arrive in China, after an arduous journey, only to find their unwilling hosts preoccupied with battling vicious alien monsters. It was to defend against these marauding creatures, so the script claims, that the titular structure was built. As Damon’s character becomes committed to this struggle, not least because he’s attracted to the fetching commander (Jing Tian) of one division of the local forces, his companion remains focused on the original scheme, abetted in it by another traveler (Willem Dafoe) who came to the Middle Kingdom years before for exactly the same purpose, and has been held prisoner ever since. Epic in scale, the film is shallow in emotion and characterization, though the central romance is completely chaste and the dialogue mostly free of cursing. Probably acceptable for older teens. Action violence with little gore, a mild oath, at least one crude and a couple of crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.