Well made indie film about the relationship between a foster teen, her eccentric aunt, and a pro-life message.
WHO SHOULD GO:
Older teens and up for some mild cussing but mostly for the conversation and plot topics of family violence and teen sexuality.
Who would have thought you could make a charming (mostly) family friendly comedy about a dead dog, an abused foster child, and her eccentric aunt. Well director Jeffrey Ault manages to do just that in the movie Sam and Elvis. Based on Susan Price Monnot’s play titled Dead Dogs Don’t Fart, with the screenplay written by a collaboration between Monnot and Ault, the story is about a bright but defensive and hostile orphaned foster teenager named Samantha played by Marcela Griebler placed in the care of her Aunt Olina played by Sally Daykin who in turn lives alone with her taxidermied dog Elvis.
This little indie film starts off a bit clunky as Olina expresses her doubts to Elvis, avoids an incessantly ringing phone and eats the random junk food she finds about her cluttered home. However, it finds its footing quickly once the aunt and her ward are brought together and bounce their strong personalities against each other.
The acting demands occasionally become significant but newcomer Griebler holds her own. Rounding out the cast are Pete Penuel as Larry, Olina’s platonic friend and Sara Hood as Rebecca, the well-intentioned and overly sincere but somewhat inept social worker who serves as occasional comic relief.
Ault uses simple and natural settings and clothes that likely came out of the actors own wardrobes. This is to the plus, as the focus is correctly placed on the relationships involved. The other production values like cinematography, sound and the background music are sterling and perfectly meet the mood of this small gem filmed almost entirely within Olina’s house.
People speak their minds in Sam and Elvis. No polite pussy footing around impolite or bad behavior. No tip toeing around differences of opinion. And in this there is a large plus in the negative.
What I mean by that is – despite circumstances which emerge in the plot, which I won’t divulge but you can easily guess, at no time does anyone consider abortion as an option for anyone. At no time is it suggested that an unborn baby is merely a “fetus” or some other euphemism for unborn child, which circumlocution liberals and pro-death dealers fling around like a shield to disguise the holocaust level murders they champion. A baby is called a baby regardless of whether it is in or out of a womb. And that is a breath of fresh air.
There is a bit of mild cussing sprinkled throughout and the topics of domestic abuse and teen sexuality make Sam and Elvis inappropriate for younger teens. But the powerful message of familial bonds and respect for life shine forward making Sam and Elvis a definitely should-see film.
* AND IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THIS MOVIE PLEASE CHECK OUT UNPLANNED– THE STORY OF ABBY JOHNSON, THE FORMER ABORTION ACTIVIST AND DIRECTOR OF THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD FACILITY IN BRYAN, TEXAS, WHO CONVERTED TO THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT IN ONE EPIPHANAL MOMENT.
Instant Family is the charming, inspirational and humorous story of a DINK (double income no kids) couple who decide to foster three children. The film manages to be smart, brutally honest, funny and even whimsical all at the same time.
WHO SHOULD GO:
Must see! BUT only for older teens and up for language and story content.
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Instant Family COULD have been called Foster Parenting for Dummies. This is no one’s idealized version of a blended family. This is not The Brady Bunch, Three Men and a Baby, Despiccable Me or even……… The Blind Side (and you’ll see why that’s funny when you see the movie). But the movie is honest and very funny, miraculously achieving that delicate balance between comedy and drama which many movies attempt but at which few succeed. The innate parity between laughter and tears, which exists in the human condition but is rarely found in movie scripts, comes naturally to this script because the story was inspired by writer/director Sean Anders and his wife’s real life experiences of adopting. All of the characters, from the kids to the support group members to the social workers, are based on the real people Anders met through the process – normally flawed humans with the usual awkward family dynamics trying to do their best under difficult circumstances..
Instant Family soft pedals nothing as it follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg – Mile 22, Deep Water Horizon and Lone Survivor), and Ellie (Rose Byrne – Moira from the X-Men reboot and Bea from Peter Rabbit, and who, though from Australia, does a spotless American accent) from their naive, romantic visions of fostering a child, through the often hilarious mandatory support group meetings, the spotty support of their doubtful relatives, through the decision making and then to the realities of trying to support, protect, guide and raise three at-risk and traumatised children of different ages.
Sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but it is also laugh-out-loud funny.
The movie occasionally wanders gently into slapstick and slight caricature but only in a way one might, with the humor and affection gleaned from the wisdom of retrospection, remember an experience that did not seem funny at the time but ends up being one of your favorite memories. Instant Family reminds me a lot of last year’s equally brilliant Wonder, about a family coping with a severely handicapped child. There are no bad guys, only the challenge, tackled by adults and children alike, to interact with the people who love you as best you can.
And if you ever wondered, as the PSA querries, that you had to be perfect to foster a child, the characters in Instant Family will disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly.
The support group scenes are especially funny, populated, as they are, by every possible combination of would be foster parents, from: single wanna-be super mom, to idealistic fundamentalist Christians, to an infertile interracial couple, to a gay couple, and to our protagonists – an upwardly mobile self employed couple, who initially think of these children the way they do the houses they renovate for a living. All come with a unique set of priorities and preconceived, often conflicting, sometimes counter-intuitive notions. Some are even portrayed as ridiculous or annoying. But, fundamentally, ALL of them have one thing in common: A core desire to provide a loving stable home for children who have none, and who are often at risk of abuse, addiction and even death at the hands of their biological parents and the environment to which they are subjected.
These foster parents, for all of their differences, flaws, quirks, and even errors in judgment, are the living life rafts on the treacherous and stormy seas of our broken culture, desperately trying to rescue survivors who sometimes don’t even want to be saved. I love movies about: The Avengers, Thor, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Ant Man, Batman, Justice League and Agents of SHIELD. But these disparate, sometimes awkward, occasionally clueless foster parents are the true super heroes.
The acting is terrific, never succumbing to the easy temptation to sink into saccharine or false empathy, but neither does it avoid showing the warts of the torturous foster process.
Wahlberg and Byrne are excellent and never shy away from any of the very strong emotions of the moment, but don’t dwell on them either. And there is a constant balance of the solemn with the naturally evolving moments of humor that always arise from even the grimmest of circumstances. For example, the social workers, Sharon and Karen, played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures and Zootopia) are very funny as odd couple co-workers. Notaro is the prim, proper, white, reserved, rule follower while Spencer is the outspoken, blunt, pragmatic, black counterpart. But they both have a realistic view of their jobs. When Pete asks Sharon and Karen about the foster children’s father the only answer he gets is uncontrolled laughter. This humorously speaks serious volumes without belaboring the tragic point. In another scene, after learning of a significant hitch in their plans, Pete and Ellie come home to discover Ellie’s mother, Jan, being decorated with permanent ink sharpies. There was no malice involved. Children and Jan alike had mistaken them for washables. Jan, performed by Julie Hagerty, whose unforgettable stint in Airplane made her synonymnous with ditzy characters, solemnly offers good and sage advice but, of necessity, while indelibly and distractingly face painted.
The music is a cheerful and delightful sprinkling of songs like Wings’ “Let ’em In,” George Harrison’s “What is Life,” and Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now”. The perky upbeats also help soften the more somber moments. You can get the individual songs streaming on Amazon here.
The children are very natural. Isabela Moner, singer and actress, is Lizzy, the teenager who is simultaneously grateful for the safe haven Pete and Ellie provide for herself and her siblings and understandably resentful of these same people as interlopers to her “real,” incarcerated, drug-addicted mother. Moner has a truly beautiful voice and sings the credit song, “I’ll Stay,” at the end of the movie. Gustavo Quiroz is adorable as Lizzy’s clutzy, well meaning and inept younger brother, Juan. And Julianna Gamiz is the youngest and precocious sister, Lita.
The two younger kids act with the normal and very believable open ingenuousness, quick impulsive affection, manipulative behavior, and selfish temper tantrum demands of normal kids. But the writing skillfully runs a thread of abnormality underneath these kids’ otherwise normal veneer. For example, Lita happily plays with Ellie when they first meet until Lita begins play-acting with her doll, calling her doll racial epithets and interacting with the doll in ways she is obviously imitating from her previous foster parents. It’s nothing sinister but casually cruel. And it gives the audience a taste of what every precarious day can be like for these kids whose parents have abysmally let them down and are in a system which can sometimes fail them. But again the serious tone is undercut by the humorous way the failed foster couple insist she must have heard it on TV.
A lovely cameo is of Joan Cusack as an elderly, awkward, but concerned neighbor who helps to deflate another scene which could have degenerated into mawkishness but for her delightfully eccentric presence.
The filming style itself is very straightforward, almost like professionally made home movies, as we see quite intimate moments of Ellie and Pete with each other, with their families, and with the foster kids, and the support group sessions.
While there is no sexuality shown on screen, there are sexual topics which come up necessarily and inevitably with the raising of a 15 year old girl from a bleakly broken background who has severe daddy issues. In addition, under stress, there is some humorously interjected but understandable profanity that crops up sprinkled throughout the movie. This, with the serious topic of abandoned and at-risk children, make this movie suitable only for older teens and up. However for that demographic for which is appropriate it is a must-see movie.
I Can Only Imagine is the beautifully told biography, not just of the challenging life of Bart Millard, who was both the product of an abusive father, and the composer of the inspirational song, but a biography of the song, itself. The song "I Can Only Imagine" is unique in the annals of Christian music, crossing Christian music boundaries to become a number one hit in mainstream markets nationally. This song, on which the movie is based, achieved a unique triple platinum status and is the most popular Christian music song in history.
WHO SHOULD SEE THIS MOVIE:
Young teens on up. Caution should be used in bringing children due to the portrayal of Bart Millard’s father, who was an angry, physically abusive man. Though most of the abusive behavior is only talked about there are some disturbing episodes of violence.
Earl Swain was one of my husband’s best friends. He was also one of the kindest, gentlest, most faith filled man I ever met, whose favorite way to start a sentence was: "I'm so thankful that…". Earl gave up his life, repeatedly, during the course of his adulthood in many ways to many people.
Bryan met Earl while working in the emergency room. Originally from New York, then a southern transplant, Earl was a gifted nurse and would work in our home town, Lake Charles, Louisiana long enough to earn sufficient money to set out to nurse and preach the Gospel in countries hostile to Christianity. He would work as a medical missionary in places like Saudi Arabia, where even declaring your Christianity could get you thrown in jail or executed, until he needed to go back to Louisiana to make enough money to return to his missionary work. Earl continued with these acts of corporal and spiritual mercy until he met a lovely widow with three boys. He married the lady and adopted the sons. Then, on April 22, 2003, while out fishing in the Gulf with two of the kids, their cousin and Earl’s father, the boat was swamped by a rogue wave. The cousin was washed away and drowned. His father died of a heart attack as they tried to stay afloat together. Left with only a waterlogged life jacket and a styrofoam ice chest to cling to Earl prayed with the boys, kissed them goodbye and swam away to be sure that he would not be tempted, in his extremity, to latch onto one of the children. Miraculously, the boys were saved by an oil rig crew boat changing shift in the middle of the night as one of the boys held his brother above water and barely clung to consciousness himself.
Earl spent his life offering it to others and his final act of love saved the life of two of his children.
The song "I Can Only Imagine" was released in 2001, but I first heard it as it crossed station genres into the mainstream in 2003. I remember at the time it reminded me of Earl and they played it at his funeral. I can not hear it without thinking of him.
So when I tell you the song is personally important to me, you now can understand why.
The song has a story of its own. Bart Millard, the composer, was inspired to write the song in the wake of his father's death. He sings of imagining what it would be like in Heaven when he first meets Jesus: "…will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall, will I sing HALLELUJAH! Or will I be able to speak at all, I can only imagine…." But it quickly becomes obvious that Bart is envisioning his repentant and recently deceased father’s first encounter with Christ.
The movie recounts Bart’s tragic and crushing childhood through to his early adult years under the brutal hand of his physically, emotionally and verbally abusive father after his mother’s abandonment. The first miracle is that Bart's soul came away only bruised and not broken. Bart is the kind of person that never met a stranger and his enthusiasm and optimism infectiously help ingratiate him into a struggling band, then convince a jaded but wryly amused music agent to become their manager.
J. Michael Finley, a pastor’s son in his first film acting role, does a marvelous job of portraying this struggling young man and inspirationally powerhouses his way through the singing. His renditions of everything he sings will raise the hair on the back of your neck. Finley's bubbly personality, physique, humble but outgoing interactions with other people and confident singing prescence reminds me of a combination of Sean Astin and Hugh Jackman.
The supporting cast is full of familiar faces, including Dennis Quaid who is remarkable as the alternately horrifying and touching father. Cloris Leachman has a small role as Bart’s adorable grandmother Memaw. Priscilla Shirer, who we last saw in the Kendrick brothers’ War Room takes on the life changing instrumental (pun intended) role of Mrs. Fincher, the music and theatrical teacher who recognizes Bart’s potential and literally pushes Bart on to stage work. The other members of Mercy Me – Jim, Mike, Nathan & Robby – are played, respectively, by Randy McDowell, Jason Burkey, Mark Furze, & Cole Marcus. And rounding out the troupe is Trace Adkins, the baritone country western singer from Springhill, Louisiana, who plays Brickell, Mercy Me’s initially reluctant agent and ersatz father figure.
So bring your hankies and open your hearts and ears to this wonderful, spiritually cleansing, musical biography about brokenness and God's ability to redeem those who have given up on even themselves. As Earl might have said: I'm so thankful that they have made such a lovely movie out of such a beautiful song. I pray that it continues to inspire for many generations to come.
NOTE: There is no sex or nudity and no bad language and certainly no blasphemy.