It has been quite a year for our kids and it’s hard to keep them isolated from all the bad news. Just like us, kids are struggling and trying to find their own sense of calm amid all the chaos of 2020.
A good movie can help us all escape for a little while and can even offer some opportunities for parents and kids to have conversations about tradition, identity, gender and culture. Not to mention the fact that watching a movie with your kid can be a wonderful bonding experience.
Here are some popular and powerful new movies that will encourage some interesting conversations and give everyone some much-needed downtime.
"Enola Holmes" (available on Netflix)
The story: Enola Holmes (portrayed superbly by "Stranger Things" star Millie Bobby Brown) is the younger sister of fictional private detective Sherlock Holmes. She wakes up on her 16th birthday to discover that her mother has disappeared. She summons brothers Sherlock and Mycroft to help find her, but they are unhelpful and seem far more concerned with sending their sister to finishing school. Enola runs away and has her own challenging but rewarding adventure. There is also an interesting subplot about the suffrage movement woven throughout.
The verdict: Enola is strong, smart and likable as a character, and it is easy to sympathize with her sadness and anger at her mother. The movie does include some graphic violence involving a near-drowning, knives and guns, as well as explosions. The cinematic choice to let Enola break the fourth wall and address the audience directly as the narrator helps to reassure young viewers that she is not only okay but will ultimately triumph.
Age recommendation: Common Sense Media recommends this movie for ages 12 and older. Both my children are younger and many of the subtler storylines involving the mores of British society and politics went over their heads, but the movie also prompted some interesting questions about why girls had to go to finishing school and why women couldn’t vote at the time.
"Over the Moon" (available on Netflix)
The story: A young Chinese girl named Fei Fei loses her mom at a young age. When she becomes a teenager, her world is rocked once more when her father introduces her to his new girlfriend, Mrs. Zhong, and her rambunctious son Chin. Fei Fei is distraught that her father may be moving on and forgetting her mother. She latches onto an old Chinese legend about a moon goddess named Chang'e. She believes that if she can prove Chang'e's existence to her father that he'll know that one true love can last for eternity. Things do not go exactly to plan for Fei Fei, but she learns plenty of life lessons along the way.
The verdict: "Over the Moon" is part of Netflix's "Representation Matters Collection," which highlights work featuring and created by people of color. The animation style and design elements are distinctly Asian. My daughter and I appreciated the accurate representation of a modern-day Asian household and recognized many elements throughout.
The film provides just the right amount of pluckiness and humor, and delivers a happy ending that should appeal to a wide audience. It’s voiced by many beloved Asian American actors, making it an instant draw for the Asian American audience. The film's universal themes of loss, grief, blended families and personal growth should appeal to all viewers.
Age recommendation: The verdict from Common Sense Media is that this film is suitable for children ages 6 and older. My youngest is 6 and quite intuitive, so it was perfect for her and prompted questions and curiosities about how our family is similar to and different from others.
"The Witches" (available on HBO Max)
The story: Based on the popular book by Roald Dahl, "The Witches" tells the story of an English boy who goes to live with his grandmother after his parents are killed in a car accident. The boy and his grandmother live in a hotel where they find themselves in the company of a coven of child-hating witches operating under the bogus guise of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The young boy meets another kid who has been lured in by the witches. They both discover that the witches have a master plan to transform all children into mice and then exterminate them. With the help of the grandmother, the kids take it upon themselves to try and stop the witches.
The verdict: We had not read the book before, so we found the movie ending quite surprising, though it is faithful to the book. Spoiler alert: The kid gets turned into a mouse and must accept his lot. I am not sure that this message of resignation to such a fate will click with all kids, however.
The movie offered a few soft opportunities to reflect on issues about race. The movie strays from the book with its different cultural setting (Alabama in the 1960s) and casting of a Black actress in the role of the grandmother. We know from history that this was a time of segregation in the South, but this is not the case in the movie, as the characters seem well integrated.
The film has also received some criticism for portraying people with limb differences — the witches are shown with three claw-like digits — in a bad light, and star Anne Hathaway has apologized for that, while also helping to bring attention to the Lucky Fin Foundation supporting children in embracing their physical differences.
Age recommendation: Common Sense Media recommends this film for ages 10 and older. There are some scary scenes involving the witches, as well as an uncomfortable scene depicting the witches holding the boy down while dropping a potion into his ear.
"A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting" (available on Netflix)
The story: There are monsters in the world, and there is a clandestine international league of babysitters sworn to not only protect their younger charges but to combat the monsters of the world who are dead-set on kidnapping children. Why? Because it appears kids can conjure the scary nightmare monsters needed to carry out their sinister plans. Kelly Ferguson is a teenager babysitting her mom’s boss’ young son, Jacob. The monsters take Jacob, and Kelly is whisked away by a member of the order of babysitters to attempt a rescue of Jacob.
The verdict: This movie also comes out of Netflix’s "Representation Matters Collection." The hip young female lead is an appealing heroine who is portrayed as an African American teen who loves science and has a knack for solving complicated math problems in her head.
The monsters aren’t necessarily too scary on their own, but my younger child had to flee the room a few times, only to come back and keep watching when the somewhat maniacal and sinister scenes had passed. The movie holds kids’ attention well enough, with relatable characters who battle insecurities and fears, ultimately instilling in young viewers the sense that they are strong and capable of battling all kinds of demons — real or metaphorical.
Age recommendation: Common Sense Media recommends this film for ages 11 and older. I didn’t have a problem with my younger kids watching the movie. Some scenes dealing with teenage crushes and bullying angst may resonate better with older kids.