No Small Matter


Pomp and circumstance.

(2020) Documentary (AbramoramaAlfre Woodard (narrator), Rachel Giannini, Andrew Meltzoff, Alison Gopnik, Rhiann Alvig, Patricia Kuhl, Nadia Burke Harris, Jack Shonkoff, Donnie Poff, Mathew Melman, Deborah Phillips, Myra Jones-Tyler, Shea Gattis, Wahnike Johnson, Shannon Poff, Geoffrey Canada, John Wetzel, Dipesh Navsana, Robert Dugger, Seth Pollak, Rosemarie Truglio. Directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel

 

America, according to all the test scores, is rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in education. There are many reasons for that; some are systemic, others are lifestyle-related and still others have to do with how privileged some of our children have become and how unwilling they are to work. To be blunt, we are reaching a crisis point where jobs are requiring more executive function – the ability to make good decisions, to remain calm under pressure and the ability to solve complex problems. It might interest you to know that all those functions are formed in a child’s brain before they reach the age of five.

And yet we devote only 3% of our education budget to early childhood education. Pre-school teachers are thought to be glorified babysitters and the vast majority of our children don’t get nearly enough stimulation by loving adults as infants, mainly because the economic reality of the modern world requires both parents to work, often multiple jobs, just to tread water. Add a child into the mix with all the expense of child bearing and child rearing and it’s a wonder that any babies are born in the U.S. at all.

This documentary examines the importance of early childhood education and does so with clever animation, colorful graphics and the warm dulcet tones of executive producer Alfre Woodward informing us how neuron pathways are formed in the brain – and how they are shut down. We are shown recent studies mapping the brains of infants and are startled to discover that children literally come out of the womb learning; one doctor recalls sticking his tongue out at a 42-minutes old baby who then imitates him by sticking his/her tongue out back at him. Every experience at that age helps shape our brains.

Economics play a major factor in child development; wealthier parents can afford to spend time with their children more than those who have to work two and three jobs; also wealthier parents can afford top of the line childcare – nannies and tutors. By the time they reach kindergarten, the five-year-old child of a wealthy family can be developmentally two years ahead from less affluent families, and that’s a gap that’s nearly impossible to make up.

We are introduced to Deborah Giannini, a pre-school teacher who is energetic, loving and capable. She helps children develop problem-solving techniques, takes them out of the classroom to help stimulate their minds and imaginations, and is a tireless bundle of energy. We also see her dissolve into tears as she recounts that she can’t afford to live on the salary she makes as a pre-school teacher and has to work a second job to follow her passion. Children who fall behind in early development have a much greater chance of not finishing high school; consequently, they are at greater risk for being locked into a cycle of poverty and developing criminal behavior. Law enforcement and military advocates both agree that money spent on early childhood development would save money on law enforcement and incarceration later on. Although not said overtly, the filmmakers make it clear that rather than spending millions on tanks, grenade launchers and billion-dollar state-of-the-art incarceration facilities, our money would be better spent helping young lives get a head start so that they don’t turn to crime in the first place. Of course, that would take money away from the industrial-military complex as well as for-profit prisons.

The film even admits that improving early childhood development isn’t a panacea that would end crime and make the world a utopia but it would give millions of children whose parents are middle or poverty class an opportunity to better themselves and be productive. New parents should really see this film (hey, the Cookie Monster makes a guest appearance, so there’s that) to help understand their own role in early development and what they can do to improve it at home, as well as alert them to programs that can help them out. Investing in our children, as a wise person once said, is investing in our future. Never has that been more true than now.

REASONS TO SEE: Clever animation (particularly during the opening credits) and enthusiastic testimonies drive the film. Addresses a little-understood need.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes feels a bit too much like every other PBS documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing; requisite viewing for new parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cost of childcare is higher than the cost of attending public college in 28 states.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wired for Life: Early Childhood Education
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Lords of Chaos

Digging For Fire


A bunch of bros hanging out.

A bunch of bros hanging out.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Jane Adams, Tom Bower, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate, Ron Livingston, Jeff Baena, Timothy Simons, Padraic Cassidy, Steve Berg, David Siskind, Jude Swanberg. Directed by Joe Swanberg

Relationships are impossible. I mean, making them work is – first of all, you have to find someone with whom you can co-exist. Someone whose idiosyncrasies won’t drive you bonkers. Second, you have to find someone whose ideals, goals and philosophy is compatible with yours. Finally, you have to find someone with all that with whom you will grow in the same direction. What’s the secret to making all that happen?

Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) are housesitting for some Hollywood types out shooting on location. They’re treating it like a bit of a vacation since the home they’re watching is up in the Hills and has all the amenities you could possibly imagine. However, as of late, the two have been having problems. Tim has been feeling emasculated and when Lee’s mom (Light) and dad (Elliott) want to foot the bill to send their son Jude (Swanberg) to an exclusive pre-school that they can’t afford, that sensation only gets worse. Of course, if Sam Elliott were my father-in-law, I’d feel emasculated too.

For Lee’s part she’s tired of putting up with Tim’s childish behavior and his lack of inertia. He seems to be stuck in a rut and she’s frustrated – in more ways than one. To put it bluntly, she has been reading a book called The Passionate Marriage and it isn’t about fruit. When one of Lee’s friends (Lynskey) organizes a girl’s night out for her, Lee jumps at the chance, and agrees to take Jude to visit her parents, giving Tim some time to do the taxes which he has been putting off for too long. Tim found a bone and a rusted gun buried in the yard and he’s been obsessing over that.

Of course, Tim decides to chuck the taxes aside and brings a battery of bros over, including the somewhat over-the-top Ray (Rockwell) as well as Billy T. (Messina), Phil (Birbiglia) and Paul (Berg). Much alcohol and recreational substances are ingested, and Ray brings over a couple of girls including Max (Larson), with whom Tim begins to flirt.

When Lee’s friend is forced to cancel, Lee decides to just have a night out on her own. When a drunk obnoxious guy tries to hit on her, she is rescued by bar owner Ben (Bloom) who gets hurt when the drunk gets belligerent. Lee accompanies him home on the back of his motorcycle so she can give him some first aid; it becomes apparent that the two are attracted to one another. Can the two stay true to one another or are things that far gone?

Swanberg, one of the originators of the mumblecore movement, has retained some of the elements of those films here, although I would hesitate to classify it as true mumblecore. Swanberg tends to allow his actors to improvise their dialogue so the conversations sound real. He also has a tendency to examine relationships from a distance, a means I think of giving the audience some perspective which takes a little bit more work than making them feel invested or part of the relationship onscreen. Rather than rooting for Lee and Tim, we’re more observers of Lee and Tim. We’re not invested as to whether they stay together or not and so regardless of which way it goes, we don’t feel like it’s a monumental situation. As in life, there are reasons for them to stay together and reasons for them to drift apart and there really is no way to know which one would be best for them and just like in life, the decision has resonance in both directions.

The cast is extraordinary for a Swanberg film, and there really isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The humor here is bone dry (no pun intended) which is typical for Swanberg and it shows up in unexpected but appropriate places. Swanberg has a deft touch as a director and it really shows here to nice effect.

Some of the movie is a bit disjointed and some of the scenes feel like they were either added on as an afterthought, or were stranded when other scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I would have liked a little bit more flow. The movie’s denouement is on the quiet side and some may find that the payoff isn’t what they wanted.

I must say that I’ve been liking Swanberg’s work more and more with each passing film. He is certainly a rising talent with a lengthy filmography already to his credit (Swanberg regularly churns out two to four movies a year). While it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he might be behind the camera for a big budget franchise movie someday, I kind of hope he doesn’t. He seems to excel at movies that take a moment in time or a slice of life and let us examine it thoroughly. Through that lens, we end up examining our own lives, particularly who we are, where we are, what we want to be and what we want out of life and love. Heady questions to be sure.

To answer the question, there is no secret to making a relationship work. It takes dedication, focus, hard work and willpower. In other words, it takes the same things to make any sort of worthwhile pursuit work. Which makes sense, when you think about it.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty cast. Dry sense of humor. Nicely captures inner workings of couples.
REASONS TO STAY: A little disjointed in places. Payoff might not be enough for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references, some foul language and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell, Adams and DeWitt all co-starred in this summer’s remake of Poltergeist while Larson and Birbiglia also starred in Amy Schumer’s hit comedy Trainwreck this summer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Air