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Review: Men, Women & Children

October 1, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Men, Women & Children Poster

“I think if I disappeared tomorrow, the universe wouldn’t really notice,” Tim (Ansel Elgort) tells his high school guidance counsellor during one of many painfully real and deeply moving scenes in director Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children.

A star player who dropped off the football team, Tim is slowly withdrawing into the world of online gaming, and his only real friend is Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), whose mother (Jennifer Garner) controls her by closely monitoring all of her online activity.

These are just a few of the many stories in this haunting multi narrative drama that seamlessly weaves together the relationships and sex lives of numerous teenagers and their parents in suburban Texas.  Although dividing critics after premiering at TIFF, for my money this is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  The film opens in limited release this week.

Tim’s father (Dean Norris) is at a loss, blocked both in real life and on Facebook by his ex-wife.  Don (Adam Sandler) and Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) are unhappy in their marriage, both using the internet to cheat in different ways, as their teenage son Chris (Travis Tope) deals with his own addiction to online porn.  Joan (Judy Greer) is living out her own failed dreams of an acting career by posting pictures of her teenage daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) on the internet.  Fellow cheerleader Allison (Elena Kampouris) sees her as a role model, using chatrooms to fuel her eating disorder.

These people aren’t all closely connected, but they do share the common thread of having spent so much time on the internet that they’re losing touch with real life, coming together in always believable and sometimes shocking ways.  Although it would be impossible to give them all their due, there isn’t a weak link in terms of the cast.  It’s nice to see Adam Sandler in a more dramatic role, and he turns in a quietly affective performance.  Jennifer Garner is excellent as an overprotective mother who thankfully isn’t played as parody, and instead takes a chilling turn late in the film.

Between this and The Fault in Our Stars, Ansel Elgort is quickly becoming one of my favourite young actors, a completely natural performer capable of charming us with a shy smile, and also showing profound emotion.  He’s unforgettable here, in some ways providing the heart of Men, Women & Children.  When the camera focuses on a close up of his face as tears slowly start to roll down his cheeks, it’s a positively gutting moment that has stuck with me since seeing the film.

Emma Thompson narrates as an almost divine voice from above, while images of satellites floating through space provide a visual representation of not only how we are all connected, but also our minuscule space in the universe.  Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, the astronomer’s essay on the iconic photo of our planet taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, becomes a recurring theme throughout Men, Women & Children, giving the film added dramatic heft and providing a deeply affective centre point.

Jason Reitman steers clear of melodrama throughout the multiple stories, with emotional truth and a perceptive screenplay filled with sharp dialogue and moments of genuine insight.  I’ve liked all five of the director’s previous films, including last year’s unfairly maligned romance Labor Day as well as the underrated gem Young Adult, and Juno is still an all time favourite for me.  With Men, Women & Children, he captures the current zeitgeist in a way that comes tantalizingly close to his still definitive recession era drama Up in the Air.

The cinematography captures the sometimes crushing loneliness of high school hallways and faces lit up by computer screens, as text messages and web pages effortlessly appear on the screen like pop up ads, in moments of technical wizardry.  This is a big minded and ambitious film that has something intelligent to say, a message delivered through brilliant writing and uniformly excellent performances.  Engaging every step of the way, Men, Women & Children is a provocative, profound, mesmerizing and moving encapsulation of the digital age.

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