Have you gagged on your corn flakes lately as your teenager recounted favourite scenes from the PG-rated film that they watched last night with friends? They natter on about gore or steamy scenes which you hadn’t expected in a film advertised for kids under 18. Your favourite film reviewer passed over these elements and described it as a ripping yarn or a gentle romantic comedy. How could it ever have happened?

My favourite examples of this mismatch between reality and parental expectations are Titanic and The Matrix: Reloaded. Titanic is the highest grossing film of all time. Leonardo DiCaprio was all the rage at the time and parents everywhere sent young teenagers to the pictures to see an ocean liner colliding with an iceberg set within a love story. The special effects were amazing and the film won 11 Academy Awards. What no reviewer mentioned was the nude sketches of the heroine, the heroine posing nude for the hero, and hero and heroine having sex in the back of a car parked in the ship’s freight garage.

Brief scenes? Yes. Marginal to the plot? Certainly. But many parents would have asked their teenagers not to watch it – if they had known about the steamy scenes.

Very few professional film reviewers are sensitive to the kind of moral issues that worry parents.

More recently, The Matrix: Reloaded promised high-octane thrills. Its predecessor, The Matrix, had commanded a cult following, with geekish teenagers intrigued by its weird post-modern philosophy and those ultra-cool sunglasses. But the second film features a passionate sex scene and an orgy as well as a bizarre pastiche of Christian theology which called for discussion with a teenager’s parents if they had known.

The problem caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal. Columnist Dale Buss complained about the lack of information in American film reviews as well.

“The point is that the sex scene isn’t the least bit necessary to tell this story,” he complained. “The whole Matrix series is supposed to become this decade’s Star Wars trilogy. But did those epics suffer from the lack of a scene in which Hans Solo and Princess Leia couple in the back of a spaceship while Wookies cavort lasciviously outside? Naturally, nothing in the limitless pre-opening PR for The Matrix Reloaded hinted at this razor blade in the apple. So it caught many parents unawares.”

Unfortunately, very few professional film reviewers are sensitive to the kind of moral issues that worry parents. Sexual restraint and respect for authority and religious values are not on their radar – although to their credit, they do find smoking offensive. In some instances, they might even regard exposure to “adult themes” as a positive influence.

As an example of this outlook on life, check out a review for parents of the film Thirteen in the New York Times. Thirteen was a gut-wrenching R-rated film about a couple of young teenage girls who experiment with drugs, sex, selfmutilation and so on. The Times doesn’t have the sense to rule it out for 12 to 14-year-olds, although it suggests that parents should accompany their kids and “share and volunteer [their] feelings”.

So where can parents get advice when their children want to go to a film of unknown moral standing? Fortunately, there are a number of websites which offer accurate information about films which are currently in the movie theaters. Here are a few of them:

www.screenit.com

Don’t be put off by the intensely irritating pop-ups and garish advertising on this site: if you want information about what actually happens, it’s all here. There is a subscriber version which omits most of the annoying ads. To access the free version, you might have to search a while. ScreenIt is a non-affiliated service provided by an American husband-and-wife team. It lists every feature in films or videos which might be of concern to parents, from violence, frightening scenes and disrespect for authority to smoking, profanity and sex. With so much detail, you do tend to lose track of what the film is all about, but you can get a sense of that from a separate review called “our take”.

Movie and Family Video Reviews

This site is run by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting. It rates films reasonably accurately – at least with respect to their moral suitability — but is skimpy on detail. Sometimes they are a bit too harsh on screen violence and sometimes a bit too enthusiastic about feel-good messages. However, they do tell parents what influences their children are being exposed to. There is a one-paragraph wrap-up of each film, with an extended “full review” if you want to know more. The extensive archives of this website rate film back into the 1950s.

www.decentfilms.com

This is an excellent site with a Catholic background. Its American creator is Steven D. Greydanus, a film critic for the National Catholic Register. Each film has a four-part rating for artistic and entertainment value, moral and spiritual value (from “a feast for the spirit” to “poison”), overall recommendability, and age-appropriate audience. You can browse according to title, genre or ratings. You can also read a separate long, intelligent review which gives you a very good idea of what the film is about. However, it doesn’t give a very detailed description of the problematic parts of film.

www.critics.com

The problem with many family-friendly movie review sites is that they highlight the sex, violence and swearing without giving you a sense of why some films are so popular. If you are seriously interested in films, this is a great site to use in conjunction with www.kids-in-mind.com. Critics.com compiles the judgement of several American reviewers so that you can get a good idea of the consensus amongst the literati. It also has plot summaries, links back to Kids-in-Mind and background information about films and links to their official web sites.

www.kids-in-mind.com

Kids-in-Mind claims to be the oldest parents’ review site on the internet. It doesn’t worry about social significance, moral standing or artistic merit. “We simply list material that parents may not want their kids to watch or hear. Then parents can decide whether a movie is OK for their own kids, according to their own criteria.” Almost as detailed as Screenit.com. Quite a useful site and easy to use. For artistic merit, consult www.critics.com.

www.pluggedinonline.com

Focus on the Family, an evangelical American group, is responsible for this attractive site. It doesn’t give numerical ratings, but describes the positive elements, spiritual content, sexual content, violent content, crude or profane language, drug and alcohol content and so on in explicit detail. For instance, it lists the number of times “the F word” and “the S word” are used and exactly what happens in the sexual content.

www.suntimes.com/ebert

Some parents swear by Roger Ebert. His reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times are not particularly acute on moral issues, but they give a sound wrap-up of a film’s artistic and entertainment values. As a bonus, his archive stretches all the way back to 1985, so you can also use it to check out your videos or films shown on television.

Lewis Lebaron is an Australian freelance writer, film buff and internet surfer.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....