Category Archives: Reviews

Courageous 60 Minutes Exposes Big Tech’s Role in Promoting Anorexic Behavior to Vulnerable Teens. (But Wait. . . )

A Response to: Season 55, Episode 35
by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

When I found the episode on the 60 Minutes webpage to watch this story again, the very first thing I saw when I began was an ad that said the episode was brought to us by Pfizer. That's right. It is as if the Big Pharma guys were saying, "Trust us; we are on this same moral crusade." I thought such sponsorship seemed out of place—a mismatch. Maybe I am surprised the WHO didn't sponsor it. But that is a topic for another time.

What the episode featured was a report that parents have begun filing lawsuits against big tech companies like Instagram for targeting young teen girls worried about their health and body image. Allegedly, Instagram algorithms wouldn't generate stories of healthy diets or affirmations of body shapes of all kinds. Instead, apparently, it bombarded those young searchers with toxic promotions of dangerous anorexic behaviors.

It would seem that while Instagram's parent company, Meta (aka Facebook), was shielding us from false information about COVID, they have been feeding provocative images and sketchy website links to kids who were not mentally or emotionally healthy enough to recognize the dangers of the content. Further, the parents claimed that Instagram use had significantly contributed to their child's depression. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Good for you, 60 Minutes. Pat yourself on the back for your advocacy. 

But wait. Something is missing.

I propose my readers try this experiment: Listen to the episode and imagine something else—I know it may be hard. After all, this is the legacy media were are talking about— but try to imagine that every time anyone says "anorexia" or "skinny," you insert "gender dysphoria" or "gender transition surgery."

When I do, the story still makes sense to me. Parents are enraged. Lawsuits are coming. Quoting the Surgeon General, the reporter asserted that Big Tech and social media are "posing a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of America's youth" and calls for tougher standards. The bottom line in either story is that these ideologies harm our children, and certain institutions should be shamed and punished for promoting that harm.

Of course, transgender ideology was not the focus of this 60 Minutes story—eating disorders were the issue. Still, my question for CBS News is this: When will that become your issue?

When will the legacy media report that the mental health of those seeking harmful gender transition drugs and surgery is as big, or is a more significant crisis among America's youth? When will CBS News, along with their big-tech collaborators, point fingers at themselves and admit that not unlike Instagram, they have promoted and even celebrated the false ideology that a person can change their biological sex? No doubt, CBS, PBS, NBC, and others have generally shown great hostility to anyone who would push back against any form of LGBTQIA+ ideology. As a result, they have stopped far short of honestly reporting on the harms presented by the popular new kid on the block—transgenderism.

So how long will I have to wait for 60 Minutes to air their report documenting how harmful this intentional and predatory sexual grooming of our youth is and will always be? When will they interview the unfortunate humans who have mutilated themselves permanently—now eternally dependent on medicine and therapy to get by?

Will they likewise include the grieving parents who tell us how hopeless they felt in their battle to save their children from it? Will they air the tearful sound bites from the young girl who now regrets her mistaken belief that this was the answer to her depressed feelings of shame and rejection? Will the editor include the comments where the victims retell the moment when they came to the horrible realization that, unlike the many teens suffering from anorexia have done, they can never reverse the damage?

When will the enranged and steely-eyed 60 Minutes reporter attack some child-mutilating surgeon or progressive hospital administrator on camera for perpetrating this harm? (*Crickets*)

I'm waiting. If they do, I bet this is one episode Pfizer will decline to sponsor.

Short Tragedies

A Review of Independent Shorts (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

As a whole, those who selected the narrative short films for the 2018 SXSW festival are apparently obsessed with themes of gender identity. I have selected a number of these shorts to analyze for the deeper questions they raise—along with the obvious conflicts and concerns more conventionally found in the story. It is often the less noticeable films that make for the richest philosophical discussion.

These shorts do not represent the entire body of work being produced (the number of stories being made into short films is almost unfathomable). Neither does the examination here represent all the shorts submitted to film festivals—or even one festival. What it does represent are the choices this festival’s programmers made.

Inclusion in such a prestigious festival is more than just exposure for the filmmaker. It can be an attempt by the programmers to make a profound social statement. For SXSW 2018 there were only 20 shorts selected out of 3,600 entries (according to one programmer at a screening). As such, the prevalence of these themes could be taken as a representative sample among those included. While I am not privileged to know for certain, my instincts tell me they are not. As the programmer explained, they chose films “that will change your point of view.” The selection of these cinematic voices automatically implies that other voices, those not included, are marginalized. It would be interesting to know what those voices said.

An inclusion makes a statement that the subject matter, and the treatment of such, deserve the attention of, if not the public, at least the critic at this moment in time in this setting. I will note in this and other reviews that this alternative lens is not new. I recently this quote: “When a journalist becomes an activist, they are no longer journalists, but politicians.” The same applies to filmmakers; there may be rhetoric hidden under the screen's canvas—and if can taint the art.

If there is a cultural sea-change underway, the narrowed selection serves to further distance viewers from anything the previous generation held as true. No doubt, this purpose may be a subtle whisper from the infamous punk manifesto that defined the Cinema of Transgression. That statement was not so subtle: the aim of film should be to disrupt and disturb.

The reader may consider if there will be any conventions left to transgress before the beast has to turn and eat its own tail. If you consider the conventional social order to be immoral, this deconstruction is a good thing. In any case, the matter is not yet settled, so before we resign our society to this archipelago, there may be a few more propositions found in these films that need sober analysis.

Review of short: Men Don't Whisper

Understand that this reviewer is not gay. As such, it is not easy for him to understand the point of LBGTQ love stories. Like any character portrayed on screen, if one cannot feel the emotion or at least envision the bonds they feel, the lack of empathy will diminish the impact of the narrative. Perhaps that inability disqualifies me from making commentary on this short film. For better or for worse, I shall give it a go.

In light of these prevailing inabilities, the goal of a new wave of LBGTQ filmmakers seems to be an attempt to get straight folks to understand something. Perhaps it is for us to stop thinking this alternative relationship is different (ironically, it was commonly called queer in my day, and the term seems to stick).

I propose that this disruptive rhetoric is found more often in independent shorts as opposed to longer, studio films. Due to the financial stakes, executives of those projects can hardly gamble with the chance that the story will make the audience queasy. On the other hand, the independent filmmaker making low-budget shorts can bring these stories easily to the screen without the normal filtering.

Men Don't Whisper can be categorized as one in a genre where characters search for an elusive masculine identity. Of course, this is a theme for both gay and straight filmmakers, and the profound questions here are rather universal. In Men Don’t Whisper, two young men (a gay couple) realize they do not know which of them is the “man” in the relationship. Significantly, the film is centered on their attempt to find out which of them is masculine enough to claim that role.

This couple comes to the conclusion that, not unlike the perceptions of many straight men, only one who has sex with a woman can claim the title and role of a man. The film is mildly amusing as these two awkwardly attempt what is so unnatural to them—to pick up two girls in a hotel bar and take them upstairs for some easy sex. Without spoiling the ending, let us at least say that the encounter does not go well.

On a conventional level, this film is an exploration of what limits remain to the concept of masculinity in a postmodern world. When one studies the thematic trends in filmmaking, it is apparent that the quest to become a man has become a nostalgic artifact. While no couple can claim that each has a perfectly equal role—that is, one is always more dominant than the other—the once-honored character of the strong male has been eliminated from many current film narratives, especially in the shorts. In truth, a character like that would be portrayed more likely as the antagonist to one the more egalitarian protagonist. Critics embracing feminist ideology would argue that this he-man’s departure is good riddance. Thus the situation becomes an absurdist comedy when you find these two eunuch-like guys going old school to resolve a bet.

On a deeper level, the question of masculinity in this film becomes even more profound. I find the desire for someone to fill the role is significant in the context of today’s arguments over gender roles. Even in a liberated society—represented by an independent film free from the constraints of marketable conventions—the players ask the same uncomfortable question we are all asking right now.

I like to phrase the query in the popular song by Paula Cole from twenty years ago: “Where have all the cowboys gone?” Where are the men that use their sexuality, not simply to please oneself, but to serve and fulfill the woman—giving her what she really wants and needs? I have heard it said; you have to water the garden if you expect to enjoy the fruit. It becomes a vicious cycle; the boys cannot enjoy girls because they cannot give them pleasure. Of course, this is fiction, but if the two characters could, they might find their manly service to be fulfilling and enjoyable in return. Perhaps it is a universal problem among millennials; this generation has never learned how to make love. These casual relationships seem to be for the sole purpose of providing selfish pleasure and nothing else.

As many filmmakers propose, there can never be a masculine male without the character devolving into just another boy appeasing his unrestrained libido. One of the girls in this fiction exclaims, “Just having sex with a woman does not make you a man!” Of course, the journey these two girls are on provide their personal tale of tragic love, but we shall save that for another post. Still, their statement is profound. It is not just having sex that makes a man—but pleasing the opposite sex may have something to do with it. In any case, significantly, the story stops short of revealing the truth. No one gets it.

Back to the cowboy metaphor, we know the answer to the question: the romantic male-female love myth was busted in Brokeback Mountain. Still, it is significant that many filmmakers continually bring up the same question—where have all the cowboys gone? Popular western culture has succeeded in recoding the very image and idea of the cowboy as the hero. The strong, male protector no longer exists; instead, it is the male who needs to be rescued and mothered—or almost in the case of this couple, fathered. Here I am referring to the feminist take on Freudian psychology; the daughter looks for an image of her father in the boy she considers for a mate (that is, whatever healthy or unhealthy imprint the father made in her life). If these two guys are feminized, why would it be strange that they would be looking for the same archetypical father figure in each other? In any case, they both realize that neither can fill that role.

Essentially, the film proposes that having a partner play this role in a relationship does not matter anymore—a masculine man is no longer needed. Moreover, no one really misses him.

Or do we? The question will not be put to rest anytime soon.

Review of Are We Good Parents?

Another short included at the 2018 SXSW film conference posed good questions for anyone raising or who has raised a child. In recent decades, the role of the father has come under fire (think, Married with Children from the 1980s). In pop culture's stories, we continue to question the role of the parent in setting limits for their children.

In this short, a young teen daughter makes the announcement she is going on a date with someone named Ryan. What follows is a comedic life-examining by her champion-level liberal parents. The couple is filled with angst over the apparent choice of their child to date the opposite sex. Ironically, these same parents seem to have a closed heterosexual relationship. In a most Portlandia fashion, the two struggle with the possibility that they may not have eliminated all the heterosexual bias in the life of their child.

Audiences at these festivals seem to be quite open-minded (dare I say uber-liberal?). One can interpolate the political temperature from whatever gets laughs, groans, and by what questions they ask of the filmmakers after the screening. In this film, the audience found an opportunity for abundant laughs. It becomes evident they were able to scoff at the caricature of themselves without taking offense. On the conventional level, it was an exercise in poking fun at the far extreme of this kind of parenting—a cautionary tale for those on both sides of the political divide.

On a deeper level, the film raises the question of bias in another more limiting way. These are the liberal versions of helicopter parents, those who strive to protect their child from making wrong choices that they fear would be harmful—at least in the parent’s definition of harm. Here are some of the moral values/assumptions evident in this couple's parenting:

  • It is unhealthy and perhaps wrong for a child to fear the judgment of parents.
  • The sexual identity of a child is totally their choice (though this couple shows their bias in questioning that possibility).
  • When nature stacks the deck in one direction (your birth gender), ethical parents must do what they can to even the expected tug-of-war in the mind of the child.
  • A seemingly too easy choice to be heterosexual can be interpreted as immature thinking—or even rebellion.
  • An alternative choice in gender identity is a tribute to competent parenting (ergo, the title of the film)

Intentional or not, the filmmaker’s comments after the screening put the film into a new perspective. In making the film, she wondered if 18 was too late to come out as gay. Many would agree that children are becoming sexually aware earlier in life than kids in previous generations. Still, it is hard to remain neutral on this issue when one is aware of the problem of sexual abuse among children of all ages. It is one thing for a child to experience a natural and even healthy sexual awakening when the time is right. It is quite another thing when this exploration becomes abuse, and this difference must be guarded zealously. It is unquestionably right to protect kids from inappropriate adult intervention. Gay or straight, we all must monitor this boundary; if not, we allow predators a free pass to inflict harm on the innocent.

This film short raises some good questions. While we heap disdain on the undue influences of pop culture, we seldom consider if such a child’s decision on sexual orientation may be constructed on this same house of cards. Moreover, even kids are susceptible to confirmation bias and post-purchase rationalizations once they take a public stand on their identity (after they come out). If this way of thinking is not good for adults, should we, like the parents in this short, intervene to balance our child’s thinking?

Review of Tangles and Knots

Another short screened at SXSW18 was a gut-wrenching exploration of what is proper in a parent-child relationship. Referring to the bullet point made above about the taboo of parental judgment, this film can be perceived as a cautionary tale for those who forgo the traditional parent-child relationship in favor of a friend-friend arrangement.

In spite of her natural beauty, a teenage girl seems to be socially awkward among her peers. Her mother throws an alcohol-and-drug-infused pool party to prime the pump for her daughter. The strategy falters from the start, and ultimately, the mother takes matters into her own hands on behalf of her daughter. Alternatively, perhaps, it is her own needs that fuel the pitiful choices the mother makes as the party winds down.

The twist in this short is how that friend-friend relationship itself is questioned. In truth, even a good friend will challenge our thinking and our choices. Beyond seeing her daughter as a friend, the mother appropriates the life of her child. As such, like a few of the other narratives at the festival depict, the ownership of the child’s identity becomes a site of conflict.

Certainly, this is a universal, time-honored theme in drama: a child leaving the parent and becoming a separate person. Significantly, this tale is set in the context of a single or divorced mother clearly wearing the yoke of her own unfulfilled dreams as she further burdens her daughter. The dysfunctional twist in this film is that the mother’s vicarious possessing becomes an expression of her own self-loathing.

Sadly, festival viewers heard that this film is based on the filmmaker’s own experience as a daughter of such a mother. Unfortunately, these troubled relationships are quite common in society. This short film is a shocking tragedy, best considered in the same genre of film that explores the ongoing consequences of broken marriages.

Where’s Coach?

Review of Write When You Get Work (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

Viewers might consider this film as another in the genre of anti-hero comedy. When it is difficult to place the actions in some framework of reality, the plot becomes absurd, and absurdity can only be placed in the comic genre. Often, the absurdity comes from a juxtaposition of ideas that seem incompatible—in this case, the good-hearted criminal.

Continue reading Where’s Coach?

The Return of Religion

Review of Jinn (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

It is refreshing to see well-developed African-American characters in a narrative, and this story is one of the best in avoiding stereotypes. Not surprisingly, Jinn is written and produced by a group of emerging Black filmmakers in the U.S. What adds to the quality of this film is that the narrative provides a refreshing take on the troubled encounters the whole world seems to have with religion these days.

Many young people in our post-modern society represent a second generation (or more) of people living their whole lives unchurched. Certainly, after a generation or two growing up without religious traditions, these descendants must find the idea of returning to a religious lifestyle quite strange. It is fascinating to consider why, after decades of freeing their minds (and bodies) from religion, we find people now eager to submit themselves to the restrictions of the most strict of religious practices. Such a leap of faith is portrayed as genuinely fulfilling for the characters in this story. What makes Jinn stand out is that it unfolds in the context of Islam.

Jade, a divorced mother (Simone Missick), is a television personality in Los Angeles. After years of drifting, she has taken a leap in her decision to identify herself as Muslim. What is particularly significant is that such a decision is considered irrevocable in the religion—backsliders are branded apostates. Not only do they fail themselves, one would insult the religion and the prophet Mohammed if they changed their mind. In fact, apostasy is considered a crime in some parts of the world.

Obviously, one can see the potential conflicts in a situation where people who jump from one fad to the next find themselves confronted with the possibility of taking one final leap. While people will mark their bodies with a tattoo that will last a lifetime, this same permanency is seldom applied to relationships—with each other, as in a marriage, but also those between a person and a god or a religious way of life.

The film becomes even more interesting when the point of view shifts to Jade's daughter Summer (Zoe Renee). The girl is a typical teenager living in the city—she enjoys sexy fashion and expressive dance. She is fully religious in only her social media practice; she knows almost nothing about Islam. When she agrees to follow her mother into the faith, the depths of the commitment only come upon her gradually. She reaches a point where she can no longer live in both worlds at the same time.

The title Jinn comes from para-supernatural beings described in Islam (or at least in this film) as being created by smokeless fire (light). They can be mistaken as human—those who are created from clay. These creatures have the ability to bring a fire that will scorch the world around them, or they can bring a fire that simply warms life. Summer is convinced that she is Jinn, seeing herself as providing the warming light of love that must transcend the limitations of religion.

Refreshing on so many levels, the religious theme will be relevant to any faith tradition. Shape-shifting adults often struggle with their personal commitments as they also consider what religious legacy they hope their children and grandchildren will embrace.

Alien Incarnation

Review of First Light (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

Cast members from film sitting on a porch.Another in the science fiction genre where an alien race brings a blessing to a troubled earth, First Light has some interesting company. The film Arrival is one good example. In many of these tales, only certain characters have the sensitivity to hear or understand the message brought by these alien angels of mercy.

First Light is set in a town situated somewhere out West. Two teenagers are brought together after a strange set of events one night at a party outside of town. Few people in the town seem to be aware of, much less concerned about, the patterns of strange lights that appeared in the sky,
Continue reading Alien Incarnation

Trailer Park Parent Trap

Review of Sadie

By Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

A predominant theme found in the narrative features (and many of the narrative shorts) at SXSW 2018 was that of broken families and abandoned, troubled kids. Sadie is a film that uses tragedy to analyze the consequences of a dysfunctional family experience imposed on kids.

Oddly, the film made me think of the old Haley Mill’s classic, The Parent Trap. In that story, twins use diabolical-yet-innocent tactics to scare away the new love interest of their divorced dad in the hope that they can reunite their parents. In Sadie, we have a teen who likewise takes action to keep her mother and father together. However, dad seems more interested in fighting in the Middle East than caring for his family. Nevertheless, Sadie ( is fiercely loyal to her dad and appalled that her mother (Melanie Lynskey) would consider cheating on him.

This film, be warned, is a tragedy on many levels. Elsewhere among these recent reviews, I take on the growing identity crisis among men—especially fathers—who in spite of their best efforts, cannot seem to connect with those they are called to love, protect, and serve. This film flips that desire, depicting a man who seems completely uninterested in keeping or restoring those familial connections. In either case, this balanced communion is generally missing among the assortment of male characters. The festival’s films do a great job in exploring this disability. In the case of Sadie, it is appropriately framed in a tragedy, as the teen takes matters into her own hands.

At one of the premiere screenings, an audience member asked a most insightful question of the young actress (Sophia Mitri Schloss) who plays Sadie: “Do you think she should be punished for what she has done?” After giving it some thought, she offered, “No. Because I think she has suffered enough.” This insightful exchange raises flags as more of our society's children will surely continue to suffer from abandonment and abuse in the future. The question will arise: “Can we or will we hold them accountable for their actions when the parents are so easily blamed?”


Non-typical Bucks

A review of Legacy of the White Tail Deer Hunter (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

Buck (Josh Brolin) is a legendary hunter staring in his own video series. His loyal cameraman Don (Danny McBride) accompanies Buck on a special hunting trip—the first for his son Jaden (Montana Jordan). The hunter’s situation in life is reflected in an old buck deer they site early on the trip—the animal has a huge rack and a sad, grey-looking face. Buck categorizes him as a non-typical specimen, and certainly, this describes Buck well. This film stays within the pattern of films at SXSW 2018 dealing with broken families and the difficult rites of passages for the kids in such a situation.

Continue reading Non-typical Bucks

Where the Wind Bloweth

A Review of Galveston (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

Photo of two people on beachSet against the backdrop of a city known for its hurricanes, Galveston is the place of refuge for an unlikely couple on the run from the mob. Working as a hitman, Roy is set up by his corrupt boss in New Orleans. In escaping the sting, he also rescues a prostitute by the name of Rocky. Reluctantly bringing her along, Roy chooses Galveston as their destination—a place where they can lay low. Along the escape route, they rescue her little sister Tiffany from the girl’s abusive step-dad.

Continue reading Where the Wind Bloweth

Ripped Pages

Review of Damsel (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

It is quite fascinating to watch the trajectory of the Zellner Brothers, David and Nathan, as they have continued to fine-tune their unique style in filmmaking. One may wonder if they got into directing and producing because they wanted to act, or they act because it makes producing and directing that much more efficient. Like the Coen brothers, it is unclear whose creativity is the driving force or if they share all the creative decisions that go into a film. In any case, the sibling team has risen to be among the kings of independent cinema, and it is appropriate to mention them in the same breath as the Duplass brothers (in my eyes, a huge compliment).

While I am impressed with their craft and their success, I also note that the content of their films can be quite challenging on multiple levels. On a conventional level, it is fun to enjoy the strange juxtaposition of opposites and the snarky humor that is finely crafted into their dialog—at times, quite eloquent. As their success has grown, their films progressively seem less like low-budget home-movies and more like refined studio productions. What has not changed is the complexity of the heroes, if there are any, and the vague resolve of a film’s one big question if stated at all. This evolution is not necessarily a fault in the filmmakers, but certainly, such style can be risky in an attempt to reach a more traditional audience. A Brechtian style might prove to be a limiting barrier as their films start finding their way onto streaming sites. The average Netflix viewers are certainly quite different from the more open-minded festival audiences. Festival fans expect to be stretched; they are more willing to take a risk in identifying with these Zellner characters. Time will tell if their unique style will attract a more diverse set of fans.

In Damsel, the brothers try their hand at directing a Western. At times, the dialog in this film takes on an old-time cadence and phrasing reminiscent of O Brother Where Art Thou. The opening scene (at a square dance) was masterfully performed and directed. Yet after it shows promise as a traditional western, the plot twists divert it to become more of an Unforgiven sort of tragedy. Typical of the other Zellner brother films I have seen, the action need not make sense (not even historically or geographically); the story must only be plausible for it to work. The brothers are good at depicting a realistic corrupt or tragic human condition in need of redemption.

However, where might that redemption come from? On a less conventional level, the film makes a sharp statement about religion. In a Coen-like realization similarly expressed by the lawman in No Country for Old Men, this film is bookended by two parsons who each come to the same realization that they cannot make a difference among the "savages." Note that the term as used here does not mean the native Americans. As a matter of fact, the only native American is more erudite than any other character in the film. The savages are those who are immune to the Gospel—or too far gone for it to have any effect; the preachers cannot help them. As the film opens at a stage stop, the old parson (Rober Forster) passes on the mantle of his pastorate to the reluctant newbie (David Zellner). Apparently, Parson Henry as he is now known has little experience or aptitude for the job but accepts the role anyway.

Significant is the worn Bible the old parson hands to Henry. Many of the pages are missing—used for kindling and personal hygiene. Later, Parson Henry also uses a page or two to blow his nose. In the world of Damsel, the Word is reduced to a toiletry, completely without spiritual power and useful in the only the most humble of ways. While potentially offensive on one level, the disrespect is no more than Christ himself experienced while on earth. While I see no reason to believe the Zellners had that particular metaphor in mind, the actions provide a moment of pause for any Christian as the crucifixion is replayed symbolically in those ignoble references. (Perhaps the pause is for more than a moment.)

Finally, the parson himself, not fully committed to the ways of the cloth, begs the Indian (uncredited, apparently) to allow him to join the tribe—to fold his identity into the nobler savage way of life—he is refused. Later, he offers himself as a faithful companion in honorable marriage to the widowed Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), but she too scoffs at him. Old Time Religion seems to have no companion in this Zellner film, but as one observes the drift away from Christianity in postmodern times, perhaps these brothers are only the messengers.

The Deepening Spiral


Review of Age Out

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

At the world premiere of Age Out (originally titled Friday’s Child )at SXSW 2018, I became somewhat annoyed with the question and answer session that followed the screening. As typical at these festivals, fans often stick with safe questions about technique rather than dive into deeper issues raised by the story. Instead of exploring the meanings behind the film, those asking questions that night seemed more interested in talking about aspect ratios and camera lenses. For this viewer, the film triggered some dark memories, and as such, the movie was unusually visceral.

Be assured; this is a sensory film. The movie demonstrates the creative talent of director A.J. Edwards, more or less a prodigy of the legendary Terrence Malick. Yes, most of the film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the simple titles are reminiscent of a Dragnet episode. This look was purposefully crafted, providing a sense of confinement not possible in widescreen. Likewise, with the retro look, it is hard to sense a satisfying future—we find ourselves stuck in the cycle.

The stark experience enhances the crisis found in the plot, which can now lead me away from exploring the wonders of the film craft and examining the more profound message found in the story. Others can continue to discuss Edward’s style—I will not be surprised; assuredly, critics will be talking about him more often from here on out.

However, due to personal experience, this reviewer cannot help but focus on the plot. The story fits well into the overall theme that emerged from the collection of films screened at SXSW 2018—broken families, abandoned and troubled kids. Emerging young actor Tye Sheridan plays Richie, an 18-year old who times out of Texas's foster care system. His birthday means that the state is no longer obliged to provide a family for the kid.

It becomes apparent that Richie has not had a good go in the system. He seems to both relish and fear the opportunity to try life on his own. Initially, he finds a construction job and meager housing in a distressed Waco neighborhood. Quickly, the efforts required to avoid all the pitfalls of life in this environment begin to wear down the young man.

Richie is a character who will evoke strong empathy. He seems to be a sweet kid, but we soon find out he is not innocent. There is plenty of blame to go around, but Richie makes some painfully bad decisions. One choice is to hang out with an older boy named Swim. Caleb Landry Jones plays this fascinating character with the same deranged kineticism imposed by Heath Ledger when channeling the Joker in the Dark Knight. This criminal-minded young adult takes Richie under his wing, but his sort of mentorship is not what Richie needs at this time and place in his life.

The movie's original title, Friday’s Child, evokes imagery from the familiar English poem "Monday’s Child." As you watch the film, consider which characters represent the Wednesday’s and Friday’s children in the verse. Edwards also admitted that his screenplay is based loosely on Fedor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. With this knowledge, I dare not provide any more spoilers; let us call this a tragedy that ends with a glimmer of hope, and it is the source of this hope that is most profound.

Any parent watching this film will agonize over the idea of their own barely-adult child entering such a world. Let me confirm from my own experience that this kind of abandonment is fertile ground for many bad things to happen. On my own the last half of my senior year in high school, I lived in a nearly-condemned house with no furniture. By the grace of God, I survived, but adulthood came upon this naive teenager like a sharp slap in the face. I have many regrets about my life during the six months I was on my own before moving into a college dorm. I was just 17 years old.

Overall, Age Out evokes three important truths about abandoned or lost children in a postmodern milieu. (Admittedly, some of this stems from my experience as a teenager on my own.) The first is that children who are abandoned to the streets hurt themselves and hurt others. With some, it is a matter of fierce pride and independence that sets them on this rocky road—a rebellion against the very structures that protect them. For others, perhaps like Richie, it is fate—a spiral of deepening bad luck. In either case, the paradox is confounding—these may not be bad kids, but they are certainly capable (dare I say likely?) of doing bad things. The spiral deepens because few have the means, the character, or the will to reverse the course. I was simply lucky in this regard. Despite my bad choices, I found friends in college who helped me escape—but it took several years to break the cycle completely, and, regrettably, I left damage in my wake.

Secondly, a kid can hardly make it right out of high school on their own, even if they get a diploma or GED and work diligently in the jobs they can get. Few are prepared with the skills and experience to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. The pressures and temptations of the world cruelly erode any hope that a special kid can buck the odds and double these problems when these same teens get pregnant. If the kid’s parents can provide shelter, they have a chance—but this arrangement can wreck the entire family if it was already weak. In any circumstance, these kids need someone or something to hold them accountable to honor the ways that make survival possible.

Thirdly, kids easily find the wrong kind of companionship on the street. Young people can be painfully idealistic, and as such, they quickly rationalize their choices. They may find a way forward, but the act often—too often—becomes the very thing that makes matters worse. What looks good on the surface ends up hurting them and leaves the kid more troubled than before. While not an excuse, one should understand how the innocent-but desperate will follow a shape-shifting pied piper who seems to have all the answers. Just remember, these kids have few alternatives.

Watch this wonderful film and weep for Richie and all the kids on the street—regardless of how they got there. Enjoy the filmmaker’s techniques, but use them to take you deeper into the story. Think about Richie the next time you see one of these young people on the street hustling some scam or in your neighborhood selling questionable products or door to door. Or perhaps they have become invisible—you may not see them at all. In any case, consider why our support systems cannot stop them from hurting themselves and what best course of action you can take to become part of the solution. If you become motivated, one helpful step is to learn more. Check out the Upbring organization for more background on the problem and for ways you can get involved.

Note: As the reviewer, I must disclose my bias in that I had a couple of minor roles in the production, and I consider the former CEO of Upbring to be a close friend.