Author Archives: SR Staley

Terminator: Dark Fate adds humanity to a long-running franchise

Terminator: Dark Fate is surprisingly good for a movie that lines up as the sixth in the Terminator franchise. (Full disclosure: I saw T1 and T2, but missed all the others.)  Produced by James Cameron and directed by Tim Miller, Dark Fate brings back Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger as an older model terminator with the human name Carl. The movie also introduces Latina actress Natalia Reyes as Dani Ramos, a Mexican teenager who has been targeted by the future as the newest threat to the machines of the future by dispatching the newest model terminator (a Rev 9 played by Gabriel Luna). Mackenzie Davis plays Grace, an uber warrior of the future — an augmented human — sent back in time to protect Dani.

For those that have seen T1 and T2, Dark Fate is supposed to be a chronological sequel. The plot picks 28 years after the events of T1, and Sarah Conner is a one-woman terminator hunter and destroyer. Connor mysteriously receives text messages that give her to coordinates of terminators as they arrive from the future, and she destroys them. This becomes an important plot point but telling more would reveal a bit too much for a movie that just opened in theaters and is destined for a long run. 

On the one hand, “Dark Fate” is a pretty standard terminator movie in terms of plot and action. The plot twists are important, but it’s the action that keeps forward momentum in the story. What distinguishes “Dark Fate” from T1 and T2, is the layers screenwriters David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray bring to the characters in this sequel. In contrast to the terminators, which show no emotion — they are robot killers, after all — the trauma experienced by Sarah Connor and Dani Ramos is palpable in their characters. Their arcs are well crafted, logical, and break through the expected (and exceptional) CGI and other special effects. Both characters experience dramatic breaks although Dani’s trajectory is more linear.  Linda Hamilton’s experience as an actor shines as she effectively casts important levels of reflective humanity into the deeply scarred character of Sarah Conner. That’s no small feat for a hard-core action film. Even Schwarzenegger is given more latitude as an actor, despite being a machine from the future, adding yet another subtle but important dimension to the story and film franchise.

Linda Hamilton has talked in interviews how female characters have evolved to the point where they can be tough and feminine at the same time. I have written about this as well, specifically as it relates to how Sarah Conner was scripted in T1 (see the link to my article in the comments section). Hamilton is right on Dark Fate. Sarah Hamilton is tough, but layered, and it’s great to see this character become more three dimensional and fleshed out. 

Overall, terminator movie fans should be entertained Dark Fate. Those looking for good acting, good stories, and character arcs should also find plenty to satisfy them as well.

For more of my movie reviews on this blog, click here.

For my reviews on Facebook (@themovieswithSam), click here.

For my reviews on my website (samuelrstaley.com), click here

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The Lighthouse mixes horror and psychology in time for the holidays

The Lighthouse is billed as a psychological horror film, and that pretty much captures the tone and pace of this movie. Strong performances by Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson are the glue that holds this film together. Unfortunately, a plodding plot risks disengaging audiences.

Tom (Defoe) and Winston (Pattinson) are lighthouse keepers, or wickies, in 1890. Tom is a crusty experienced keeper who knows what’s in store for their scheduled four-week gig on a rock island far away from shore. He’s also on a bit of a power trip as the senior keeper and one in charge. Winston is a former logger who is a bit of a wanderer, but taking his first job as a wickie. It’s a classic test of wills, and it’s the lighthouse (and the environment) that sets this movie apart.

Working a lighthouse was arduous, physical work, and The Lighthouse does a good job of conveying the backbreaking labor needed to literally keep the light on. Oil needs to be hauled up hundreds of steps in a spiral staircase to keep the light going, and a coal-fired steam engine keeps the light rotating. In between, someone has to keep the cistern clean and water potable to survive. Tom tasks Winston with these jobs, and this unbalanced assignment of tasks creates the tension that drives the plot. 

The lighthouse’s isolation combined with the hard labor, leads to hallucinations, or so we think. The movie keeps the audience guessing about whether Tom and Winston’s behavior is just impatience, or truly erratic. We are never sure if their other worldly perceptions are induced by exhaustion, mental illness, or perhaps something paranormal.  

The Lighthouse is the type of movie that puts the characters and actors in the spotlight. The movie is clearly a vehicle for Defoe, whose performance is strong enough he might get a major award nomination. The script also gives Pattinson enough to show the growing range of his own acting abilities.

If you enjoy deep character studies, horror (albeit on the mild side), and psychological suspense, The Lighthouse is probably a good movie to put on your list.

For all my movie reviews, check out my website here, and subscribe to my FB page (@themovieswithsam) here.

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Dora the Explorer Makes an Entertaining Entrance onto the Big Screen

Boosted by an excellent performance by Isabella Moner as the title character, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is an entertaining mix of “Spy Kids” and Indiana Jones adventure and light comedy movies. The live-action film is based on Nickelodeon’s long-running animated series “Dora the Explorer” and incorporates an intriguing fusion of Latin American and contemporary American culture. The movie keeps the campy optimism of the series, the precocious positive outlook of the lead character, and focused on its target audience of younger children.

The film opens with a six-year old Dora growing up and learning how to play in the Amazon jungles with her “explorer” parents, Cole (Michael Pena) and Elana (Eva Longoria). Her parents have been searching for the lost Inca city of Parapata in Peru, which according to legend has a massive cache of gold and riches. Ten years later, Cole and Elana believe they have found the city’s site. They dispatch Dora to Los Angeles to live with her aunt and attend high school with her cousin, ostensibly to meet and socialize with kids her own age.

Now sixteen, Dora is a cultural outsider who also has to contend with the awkwardness of high school and not knowing anything about city life. Dora, ever the optimistic, tries to make due even as her cousin (and erstwhile best friend) Diego (Jeff Wahlburg) shuns her to be with the cool kids. When her parents go missing, Dora, Diego, and two of their high-school acquaintances (including her nemesis) are kidnapped by treasurer hunters. Dora must find her parents, keep her friends alive, and outwit the treasurer hunters to survive.

The screenwriters and Nickelodeon have done an admirable job of linking the story in the movie to the animated series without losing its spirit. A seven-year old Dora can get away with her fanciful explorations in the fantastical world of animation. In live action, audiences, including kids, would struggle with the story and characters’ plausibility. Advancing her age to an innocent and naive sixteen year old allows the film to tap into the capabilities of experienced actors and provide more depth to the storylines and subplots. Younger children can still connect and relate to a teenage Dora. CGI and animation technology also allows the story to retain some of its animated elements, including an important role for her companion, Boots the monkey.

Since this is a children’s movie, the plot is predictable. But the story has enough twists older audiences will stay engaged. The combination of animation with live action provides a magical realism that most audiences will enjoy as well, providing a visual and storytelling link between the cartoon and the movie. At times, however, the movie seems like it’s teeing itself up as a theme park ride in Adventureland. More creatively, the story fuses Latain American and American culture seamlessly in a way that may foreshadow future filmmaking in a multicultural context.

The movie is buoyed by excellent performances — even if a little over the top for comedic relief — by Longoria (Elana), Pena (Cole), Eugenio Derbez (another explorer who befriends Dora), Wahlberg (Diego), Nicholas Coombe (as a nerdy high school friend who befriends Dora), and Madeleine Madden (as Dora’s high school nemesis).

Overall, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is decidedly family-friendly excursion that never strays from understanding and connecting with its core audience. Watching this movie is an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon if you have younger children and you recognize the limits of the genre.

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Thoughts on dealing with post-violence emotional trauma

A post written in the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton shootings triggered a significant response from my Facebook friends, including multiple shares, so I thought I would share the post on my blog. A link to the public post and comments can be found here, but the following is the text from the main post:

Like most, I am reeling from two days of carnage in El Paso and Dayton. What many of my FB friends might not know is that I am from Dayton. I know the part of the Oregon District where the shootings took place very well. I grew up the Dayton suburb of Bellbrook, raised my kids there, and was embedded in the community until moving to [Florida State University] 2011. Now, it turns out, the shooter may have lived one street away from the house where I lived for nearly 20 years. Needless to say, my thoughts and prayers go out to all my friends, relatives, and neighbors. (As far as I know, none of my family, friends, or neighbors were directly in harm’s way.)

These events are sad, tragic, and dispiriting to say the least. Everyone will be going through a difficult time processing the human tragedy, the apparent senselessness of the violence, and their implications. Finding ways to move beyond these tragedies is difficult, but essential work, and we all can play a part in the healing.

Unfortunately, I have found myself grappling with these types of traumas much more than I ever anticipated since I moved for Florida State and Tallahassee in 2011. Since coming to FSU, I have learned an astounding amount about emotional trauma from sexual assault survivors, but I’ve also worked (as a teacher, not a professional counselor) with my students to cope with the FSU Strozier library shootings in 2014, the Parkland high school mass shooting in 2018, the Hot Yoga studio shootings in 2019 as well as the aftermath of the devastation from Hurricanes Matthew (2016), Irma (2017), and most recently Michael (2018), which wiped out much of the Panhandle. Sadly, this seems to go with the territory when teaching at a large, urban university in the third most populous state in the nation that is also surrounded by large bodies of water. In each of these cases, I worked with students one-on-one and in group discussion.

I am not a trained professional, but I have learned we all have a role to play in helping others overcome these tragedies. This role includes helping those who may not have been directly effected but have important emotional ties to the people and events.

Here are a few initial thoughts based on what I have learned working with my students:

  • By all means, talk about it. Verbally articulating your fears, anxieties, and emotions is vital to processing these events. It also creates a firm foundation for the next step in healing. Create safe spaces for family, friends, and others to help them process their feelings without judgement. This is critical to moving forward. I have found our discussions in the classroom have helped students and families move forward in a constructive and positive ways. The feelings are real. They need to be named, discussed, and contextualized. Talking in a nonjudgmental space helps… a lot.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional help, even if you weren’t directly affected by the event. We are human. We are naturally empathetic. Part of they way many people process these events is by identifying direct connections to the tragedy to provide context for the hurt and pain. Just because I am 900 miles away from Dayton, doesn’t mean I am not struggling with how to connect to friends and family or experiencing other forms of anxiety, including guilt, fear, and anger. Professional counselors, therapists can help you process through this.
  • Remember the human toll from these events is vast. I know my community of Bellbrook is reeling from the knowledge that someone in their own community committed this horrendous evil. Many will be saying “why didn’t we know?” “Should we have known?” “What could we have done?” Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people will feel the tangible effects of these events and will be grappling with the aftermath.
  • The physical toll on the survivors is just one element of their personal tragedy. The emotional and psychological scars will be long lasting, and for many permanent. This event is an indelible part of their identity from this point forward. Be patient. Be supportive. Remember, everyone is on their own journey. As friends and relatives, our task is to help them get onto that healing path.

I have known many survivors of tragedy that have emerged as powerful, amazing human beings. These events, however, require us all to do our part in small and big ways to ensure a healing process and journey can begin.

One final thought (for those on spiritual journeys): I was in Orlando last night, but had the crazy idea to try to make it back to Element3 Church for the 11 am service. (I usually attend the 9 am.) These plans were made weeks ago. Today, our lead pastor, Lori Green, opened the service with a heartfelt and impassioned plea to remember why we were attending service today — because our Christian faith puts pre-eminent emphasis on love, community, and connection. This is where God’s love manifests itself in our daily lives. I have to admit that as she was talking about Dayton, I began to process El Paso, Parkland, Hot Yoga, Strozier library, Hurricane Michael — now hundreds of students where I have been privileged to lead discussions about coping with tragedy and trauma. I became overwhelmed.

I don’t know if anyone noticed my tears. But I realized I was in a community of people that understood the path forward is through love and compassion, not anger and violence. This is where the healing begins, continues, and leads to long-term peace. We cannot do it alone. Nor should we.

I am not sure why I was compelled to make it back to E3 today, and Pastor Lori certainly didn’t know what I was going through as I was listening, but I am glad I did. I am grateful this is my home Church and can testify to the power of its message.

For those interested in knowing more about my work on emotional trauma, particularly as it relates to sexual assault, here are a few links:

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Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time offers up subtle satire of Hollywood

The best part of seeing a Quentin Tarantino movie is experiencing the story unfold before you. Every scene is carefully and intentionally placed. Each physical element in view, whether silverware or magazines, is chosen to help the audience interpret the context. Every detail is relevant to the action, dialogue, and characters. Each word of dialogue is scripted for meaning and delivery. Tarantino’s craftsmanship is evident in every frame and scene in his newest film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. This helps because audiences will need a little patience as the story is pieced together over its two-hour and forty-minute running time. 

Once Upon A Time is also different. The movie features many of the elements that have made Tarantino an auteur director and filmmaker. Unfortunately, identifying them in a review would likely create too many spoilers. They, however, are used creatively enough: Audiences may find the experience similar to going into an art gallery expecting to see impressionist art but coming out thinking the artist was a realist. It’s a movie that will sit with you (in a good way) well after the closing credits. (The movie, not surprisingly, is rated R.)

The story is set in 1969 Los Angeles in the months leading up to the Manson murders in 1969. (Note: This is not a spoiler). Excellent performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Margaret Qualley in a notable supporting role are included in an ensemble cast that covers players in Los Angeles movie industry. Pop culture references abound, also not surprisingly for a Tarantino film, and artfully woven into the action and dialogue. While the “Manson Family” figures prominently in the story, the film’s ending has a signature climax that challenges and provokes. 

Some have suggested Once Upon a Time is a “love letter” to Hollywood. I think a subtle and nuanced satire with its implicit commentary on the film industry would be more accurate. Overall, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is well worth watching and will probably show up on lists for major industry awards in 2020.

Read this movie review on my Facebook page @themovieswithSam by clicking here.

Read all my movie reviews on Facebook (@themovieswithsam) by clicking here.

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Wild Rose‘s performances tell poignant story of hope and personal responsibility

A Scottish girl working on the economic margins of Glasgow, Scotland wants to be a country music star. So she sets her sights on Nashville and casts everything aside to get there, including her to young children. A Star is Born rip off? Not quite. Wild Rose,” has a lot of heart, as well as heartfelt performances, that allow this British produced movie to hold its own as a story and film. 

But before rolling your eyes (American movie fans), allow me to provide a little pop culture historical context that might give this film more substance than meets the eye. The Beatles started the so-called British invasion in the 1960s but it may never have happened without country music. The R&B roots of modern rock music is well known. The country music roots are not. (I am writing a book on the Beatles right now, so I am steeped in this pop culture history.) Yet what we now call rock music is started as a country and R&B fusion. This combination  produced progeny such as rockabilly, country rock, and, later, rock and roll. The Beatles drew heavily on early rockabilly artists including Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley, all with deep roots in country music. In fact, the Beatles, particular Ringo Star, never lost their affection for Country music. The rockabilly sound was foundational to the home-grown British “skiffle” sound which became an artistic bedrock for the Beatles and other British acts. 

None of this background is essential for enjoying Wild Rose, but the knowledge allowed me to go into the movie with an open mind. I’m glad I did because the movie is entertaining with a poignant message about hope, responsibility, and maturity. The story starts off with Rose Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), an aspiring Scottish country singer living on the wrong side of the tracks in Glasgow getting out a jail after a year-long stint for drug possession. When someone challenges her about why she sings country music, she responds with the familiar adage attributed to the “dean” of country music songwriters Harlan Howard that “Country music isn’t nothing but three chords and the truth.” The screenwriters clearly have an affection for country music, and it shows in the story and on the screen.

Rose is “wild” — a care-free single mother of two, who steadfastly refuses to take responsibility for her decisions as a teenager and young-adult. Now in her mid-twenties, she is estranged from her two young children and pushing her hard working, caretaker mother (Marion, played by Julie Walters) to the limit. We quickly see that the celebrity dream in Nashville is Rose’s attempt at self-validation and escape from the dreary subsistence living of a maid or bakery worker. When a wealthy woman (Susannah played by Sophie Okonedo) hears her singing and decides to help her career out, Rose’s wilding and irresponsibility begin to catch up to her with potentially catastrophic personal consequences. 

The movie is well cast, with excellent acting all the way around. For the most part, the story holds together, although the end seems a bit rushed as the director attempts to tie up a lot of loose ends too quickly to stay in the conventional film format. Notably, Wild Rose is set in Glasgow, Scotland, and the Glaswegian dialect and idiom — the “Glasgow patter” — is thick. At times, as an American, I felt like subtitles might have helped, but the action, tone, and context made the story easy enough to follow. 

The heart of Wild Rose, however, is Buckley. She has a great voice and an interpretive style well suited to the country music and lyrics she sings as well as the story the movie tells. She delivers on strong, heart felt scenes and songs that effectively carry Rose Lynn’s real world travails into the metaphoric songs she sings and listens to as part of the character. 

Overall, Wild Rose is a satisfying film with strong performances, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. 

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Spider-Man: Far From Home puts the story back in Marvel superhero films

Spider-Man spun his web around movie theaters this weekend, and in all likelihood it’s going to be another blockbuster. Despite “superhero fatigue,” this installment of the franchise featuring Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) alter ego is likely to thrive. That’s primarily because it’s a good movie.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a refreshing follow up to the weak plots and superhero cameo-heavy Avengers movies Infinity War and End Game. Spider-Man’s focus on a teenage superhero gives the screenwriters room to breath, and they use it effectively to propel the plot and build tension. 

The best part of Spider-Man is the character arc of Peter Parker. Wanting to be a superhero would seem to be a no-brainer — everyone aspires to save the world. At least according to Avengers and their supporters like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). But Peter knows all too well the sacrifices that come with his role. He’s still a teenager who wants to do teenager things, like muster up the courage to tell the girl of his dreams (MJ, played by Disney star and singer Zendaya) how much he likes her. A high-school trip to Europe is the perfect opportunity.

Set in the aftermath of “the Blip,” when half the world’s population disappeared and then reappeared (see Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: End Game), the world is trying to get back to a new normal. Peter is still reeling from the loss of Tony Stark and other Avengers. The movie, however, doesn’t dip too much into the trauma of Stark’s death, except to dwell a bit on the personal loss of a friend and mentor. Stark’s passing, however, does more to push Peter toward being a normal teenager than confronting the loss of someone very close to him. 

The Earth, however, is faced with a new threat from another dimension, and Nick Fury summons Peter back into the Avengers fold. This time, he is assisting Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) in trying to stop the existential threat of what they all the Elementals. These monsters feed off the energy of the Earth’s core, only to destroy it. 

Spider-Man: Far From Home is solid action, but misses a few beats. It’s unclear during most of the movie, for example, how Spider-Man’s heroics really assist Mysterio in wrestling these new threats to the ground. To some extent, this superhero impotence is a subtext for the larger question Peter needs to face about his future as a superhero. 

To the movie’s credit, the graphics never get in the way of the action, plot, or the character development. The CGI is all used for specific reasons and purposes, and this helps hold the movie together. This is actually pretty important for the narrative in this movie. 

Spider-Man fans are likely to enjoy the movie. But Spider-Man: Far From Home also holds a lot of entertainment value for general audiences, too.

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MIB International entertains despite simple plot

Men In Black: International, or MIB International, doesn’t have many surprises although the movie somehow manages to entertain. MIB International, however, is definitely geared toward younger audiences. It’s PG-13 rating might actually be a little more restrictive than necessary. 

The plot is pretty simple. We are surrounded by aliens of various sorts. It’s up to the secret society MIB to ferret out the bad ones and keep the good ones in line. This time, MIB is trying to save the Earth from something called the Hive. MIB plans, however, are put into a bind. Someone suspects a mole in MIB UK unit is working against our heroes. The specter of corruption within the agency is the primary source of tension in this story. 

MIB International is saved by strong casting. Chris Hemsworth (Thor in the Marvel universe franchise movies) plays Henry, or Agent H. He is best known as a care-free investigator and playboy. He’s riding the reputational wave of a major victory over the Hive when he defeated it several years earlier with just his wits. He is paired with Molly (Tessa Thompson, the Creed movies, Selma, Annihilation) who has tracked down MIB on her own in an effort to join the ultra secret agency. Thompson adds a nice spark and sassiness to the movie. Emma Thompson also shows up as their supervisor, Agent O, with Liam Neeson playing Hight T, the head of MIB in the UK.

While the plot is transparent and predictable (at least to adults), MIB International‘s special effects and Tessa Thompson’s acting do a nice job of keeping audiences engaged. 

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Anna‘s stylish action elevates its story

Anna is the newest action movie by French auteur director Luc Besson and my full review is now live at The Beacon. The creator of Leon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita, among others, has helped him build a reputation for deeper storytelling while also paying attention to style and the craft of film making. This approach is clear in Anna, where Besson makes the risky move of casting real-world Russian super model Sasha Luss in the title role. It works.

Besson doesn’t pull back on the action sequences nor the femininity of the emotionally traumatized titular character. The fight choreography is impressive because of its physicality as well as its calibration to the physique and mental state of the lead character. Anna never transforms into a buff, physically trained fighter. This is critical for the plot and the character.

Film critics have not been kind to Anna in their reviews, but audiences clearly enjoy it — as I did. I find it odd that the critics’ major hit against Anna appears to be that Besson doesn’t seem to add anything new to the genre. But some of these critics haven’t found similar faults with franchise films in such series as Mission Impossible, Jason Bourne, or John Wick. Besson’s character. The story in Anna is more nuanced than these other films. The layers were clear to me in the way Besson builds the arc of the character, the time jumping through the story, and the nuanced choreography of the martial arts sequences. (Sure, the fights are excessive. But that’s a staple of Western action films.)

My full review is now live at The Beacon, the blog of the Independent Institute.

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Dark Phoenix character-driven story swamped by superhero fatigue

Dark Phoenix limped into the box offices over its first weekend and seems destined to be a big-ticket flop. I have to wonder, however, if part of the movie’s under performance is due to superhero movie fatigue. Dark Phoenix brings a lot more onto the screen than previous movies, particularly in terms of story and well-defined characters.

This Marvel movie installment puts Jean Grey, aka Phoenix (Sophie Turner) at the center of the plot. Jean is brought to Charles Xavier’s (Charles McAvoy) school for mutants as an eight year old in the wake of a horrific car accident. She knows she is the cause of the accident that orphans her, and the resultant insecurity over her ability to control her mutant powers becomes central to Dark Phoenix. Intellectually, Jean knows, and wants, to use her powers to do good. But she is also torn by the confusion wrought by her natural-born tendencies to use her powers to destroy and dominate. When an alien race led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain) discovers a preternatural force occupies Jean and magnifies her mutant powers, Jean finds the dark side all too tempting.

Dark Phoenix is a character-driven movie with layers. While Jean Grey’s journey toward self-discovery provides the backbone to the movie, the screenwriters have paid attention to critical supporting characters as well. Xavier’s character in particular must grapple with the consequences of his decisions to shield Jean from the truth about her family and her past. Solid performances by Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven), and Nicholas Hoult (Beast) hold Xavier accountable for a superhero version of helicopter parenting that leaves Grey poorly prepared to deal with life as an adult.

Dark Phoenix slips into cgi excess with over the top urban destruction, but the plot nevertheless remains surprisingly focused. Overall, however, I found Dark Phoenix to have strong story lines that connect with real-world struggles of overcoming feelings of inadequacy, acceptance of natural abilities, and the challenges of conforming mainstream expectations. The movie’s strong thematic warning to parents who, despite their best intentions, allow their protective instincts to create a bubble that fails to equip their children with healthy coping skills also strengthens the story in substantive ways.

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