Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Annie Adoption Movie Review

In perhaps the most anticipated and widely-promoted adoption-relevant movie of the year, Sony Pictures revisits the story of Annie. Played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was so brilliant in the excellent film Beasts of the Southern Wild, Annie lives in New York City. She has been in foster care for almost her whole life; she was found, abandoned with a note, outside of a restaurant when she was only 4 years old. Currently, Annie lives with Miss Hannigan, a bitter, disillusioned former singer who now takes care of foster kids for income. Annie shares a room with three or four other girls, and Miss Hannigan requires them to do much of the upkeep of her home.

 When the foster home is visited by a caseworker, Annie finds paperwork which provides her with some of her case history. She heads out to the hall of records with the hopes of finding out who and where her birthparents are. However, She’s not able to find out very much.

On the way home, she is nearly hit by a car, but is saved by Mr. Stacks, a wealthy entrepreneur who is in the middle of a dismal campaign for mayor. Stacks’ advisor suggests that it would be good for his publicity if he takes Annie in as a foster child, and so he does. He initially views her as a bother, but comes to care for her. However, one of his advisors believes that Annie has served her purpose by getting some good publicity for Stacks’ campaign, and begins to plot for her to leave.

Without Stacks’ knowledge, his advisor arranges for two people to present themselves, pretending to be Annie’s parents. He has coached them so that their ruse will convince Stacks and Annie. The ploy is successful, and the imposter parents go away with Annie. She quickly learns that she has been misled, and feels heartbreakingly betrayed by Stacks, whom she had come to love. When Stacks learns about this foul play, he immediately pursues Annie’s kidnappers, rescues her, and convinces her of his desire to commit to caring for her for a lifetime.

How Does This Connect to Adoption and Foster Care?

Annie is in foster care. Like many kids in care, she is resilient. She maintains her optimism and cheerfulness in spite of disappointments and unkindnesses that she experiences.

Annie misses and longs for her birthparents. She dreams about them, and joins the other girls in her bedroom in a song imagining what their birthparents are like. Annie holds out hope that she will find her birthparents again. Every Friday, she waits all night by the restaurant where she was abandoned, years ago. Annie is in foster care because she was abandoned, and has no idea who or where her parents are. Most of the foster kids that I’ve worked with do know who their parents are, and are often engaged in visits and services geared towards reunification; that’s one disconnect between the movie and the real-life experiences of most kids in foster care.

All the kids in Annie’s foster home hope to be adopted, but some are discouraged. One says, “I’m almost 13, and no one wants teens.” Annie extends hope that she will be adopted, “You will. We all will.”

It seems that Annie will ultimately be adopted by Stacks; after she is rescued from her imposter parents, she and Stacks sing about spending their lives together as a family. We never do get resolution about where Annie’s actual birth parents are.

Strong Points

Annie is courageous, smart, hopeful and optimistic, like many kids in foster care.

Stacks often refers to Annie as an orphan. Annie corrects him, “I’m a foster kid, not an orphan. I have parents.” This is a helpful distinction to make on such a large stage. Kids in foster care are aren’t orphans, and the primary goal in foster care is almost always reunification. It’s important for foster parents – and society! – to remember, embrace, and support that. Early in her time with Stacks, she is asked whether he will adopt her. She protests, “No, no, no! I have parents. This is just temporary!”
In one scene, Annie sees her reflection and her baby picture at the same time. I can imagine that being a powerful image for anyone, but especially for people who were raised without a full knowledge of their early history.

Annie doesn’t know how to read; she explains that she has been able to hide this so far. In fact, her explanation is heartbreaking, “It’s not like the whole world wants a foster kid to begin with, and plus it’s embarrassing. I didn’t want anyone to know.” When Stacks learns this, he gets Annie a tutor; she responds very well, and quickly learns how to read. Many kids in foster care struggle academically, but so often the cause is a lack of time and opportunity to learn. Stacks asks how this can happen and someone responds that in the system, “people get lost.” Foster kids are very often smart, and can thrive when given the opportunity to do so. Annie captures that.

Stacks does a good job of joining with Annie when she is ashamed of her inability to read. He tells her, “Everybody’s got something they don’t want anyone to know.”

At one point, Annie is having a breakdown. Stacks tells her, “You’ve gotta tell me what’s going on.” Annie responds, “No I don’t. You’re not my dad.” Stacks responds well, and softens his tone, “No, I’m not your dad. I know. But I’d like to know what’s going on.” This works, and Annie is able to confide in him. Stacks also insists that Annie won’t need to leave, even when they’re confronted with a problem. He says, “I don’t care what happened. You stay here.”

Stacks eventually puts his care for Annie in front of his ambitions of gain. He and Annie agree to tie a permanent knot, to make themselves a family.


Annie spends much of the film as a commodity, first for Miss Hannigan and then for Mr. Stacks. 

Eventually, both adults realize and turn from their unhealthy attitudes towards Annie, and take a genuine interest in her.

It is very sad that Annie waits, several hours, every Friday, for several years, outside of the restaurant where she was abandoned, hoping that her parents would come back for her. It’s perhaps even sadder that she is able to do this without her foster mother realizing. She has kept her parents’ abandonment note, and reads it often, dreaming about them. When she sings about them, she imagines that they are young, smart, and good, and says that their only mistake “was giving up me.” She pleads, “Won’t you please come get your baby?” Kids in foster care do think about their parents, and when there is no accurate information, kids tend to dream up new information. Sometimes it’s worse than realistic, sometimes it’s better than realistic, but it’s often unrealistic – and sometimes their imagined reality is hidden from those that are caring for them. This reminds me how important it is to provide kids with age-appropriate, but honest, information about their stories all along.

When Annie finds her foster care record, she exclaims, “Damn! I’ve been in a lot of homes.” Sad, but true, for many kids in foster care. And it’s easy for parents and professionals to see a case file with lots of homes and assume that the child is very challenging or has lots of problematic behaviors. I’ve worked with many kids who were moved, not because of their behaviors, but because of the foster parents’ issues. It’s almost never “just” the kid.   At one point, Annie thinks that Stacks will have her leave. She packs her bags, and tells him “I’ve had a lot of practice getting kicked out of places.” This could be a hard scene for kids, but it could also be helpful because, by this scene, Stacks has come to care about Annie and insists that she does not need to leave.

Stacks learns to love when Annie teaches him how. She shows him the value of letting people into his heart. He says, “Annie gave me what I didn’t know I needed.” It would be better, though, if Annie learned from, and could depend on, her caretaker for emotional support, rather than vice versa. 

Annie’s sensitivity and emotional maturity is certainly a virtue, but it’s unfair to her to have to use it to help an adult – who is in charge of her care – to grow. Some kids in foster care have been expected previously to function in a parental role for their younger siblings – sometimes, this leads to what is sometimes called “parentified” behavior. For a while, Annie seems to be in a parental role (psychoeducationally, at least,) over Stacks. Kids watching this film should be reminded that really, it’s never a kid’s job to get a parent to be loving and kind. That’s one thing that kids should be able to take for granted.

Annie keeps her desire for her birthparents secret from Stacks because she doesn’t want to bother him. This is sometimes a dynamic in adoptive families – and probably in foster families – where adoptees and foster kids don’t want to seem disloyal to their new family by revealing their retained loyalty for their first family.

Weak Points

After longing for her birthparents for the whole movie, Annie seems to forget them once Stacks demonstrates his intention to adopt her. While permanency can help a child move on with the life that they have, it is a bit disappointing that we never do learn about Annie’s parents, and the only “parents” we find for her are kidnappers. Her imposter parents basically kidnap her. The fact that the reunion makes a mockery of Annie’s dreams, and is covered and celebrated by the New York media, could be very troubling for young viewers in foster care or adoptive families.

Although she eventually becomes kinder, Miss Hannigan is generally a horrible foster mother, and she fits the unfortunate, untrue, but often-believed stereotypes of foster parents. She’s in it only for the money. She calls Annie “you little rat.” She belittles Annie, telling her that the world doesn’t “need a smart-mouthed little rat,” and saying that because the world doesn’t need Annie, that’s why Annie’s in foster care. She also tells her, “You’re only here because I get $157 a week from the state for you.” She wakes the girls by spraying them with water, and withholds food until they complete their chores. She tells the children, “Clean like your life depends on it, because it does.” Her cruelty has impacted the foster kids’ view of the world. They sing, “Instead of kisses, we get kicked; no one cares for you a bit, when you’re a foster kid.” Miss Hannigan cruelly kicks Annie out of her home, telling her, “I told the inspector I don’t want to foster you any more. As of next week, you’re somebody else’s problem… Not a who, a where. A group home. Maybe that’ll teach you to open your mouth.” This scene could be very hard, and possibly a trigger, for kids who have suffered from disrupted placements. Miss Hannigan also cooperates in having Annie abducted by imposter parents.

The two social workers in the movie aren’t very good at their jobs. The home inspector who visits Miss Hannigan leaves confidential information laying on the floor, and doesn’t seem to realize that Miss Hannigan is trying to seduce him. The administrator who serves Annie at the records office is disinterested, dismissive and rude. Some real-life social workers in the foster care system fit these stereotypes at times, but most of us actually still care deeply about the kids and families we serve, and really desire to do our work respectfully and competently. If Annie had been served by any of the workers I supervise, I think she would have had a better experience.  Perhaps the most concerning thing, though, is the low level of supervision provided by the social workers. Miss Hannigan is a horrible foster mother. Mr. Stacks’ motivations for fostering Annie were very poor, and his “home study” was only superficial. The social worker even obeyed when she was told she couldn’t examine a particular room. Annie was turned over to imposter parents because the social services department didn’t examine them thoroughly. These are troubling and unfortunate ideas for the general population to have about how foster care works, and they’re (hopefully!) generally untrue.


Annie’s positive attitude shines in the midst of unrealistically and unhelpfully negative stereotypes of incompetent social workers and greedy foster parents. The songs are upbeat and catchy, the film is happy, and many of the kids in the theater where I screened it seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. One girl danced throughout the credits. But I can also imagine the film being challenging for kids who have had a rough experience in foster care; it will be important for parents to tell them ahead of time that the film features a very bad foster parent who is not like most foster parents. Kids who have suffered from disrupted placements or who long to be adopted, or who long for absent birthparents might find this film very hard – for those kids, parents should probably screen it first before deciding whether to share it with their kids.
Outside of those concerns, the movie is generally family-friendly, and should be good for kids ages 8 and up. Annie does exemplify several strengths of foster kids – she is hopeful, brave, resourceful, and resilient.

Questions for Discussion

Do you think Annie will still look for her birthparents now that Stacks is going to adopt her?

How did Annie stay so hopeful, even in hard times?

Is it possible to be loyal to more than one family at the same time?

What can you do to help foster kids (or a particular foster kid) thrive? Would you consider mentoring, or serving as a Big Brother, Big Sister, or CASA worker?

Activity idea: With your child, create an artistic combination of your child’s current picture alongside one of the earliest pictures you have of her. What a great introduction to a conversation about “how much you’ve grown already!”

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Imitation Game

Alan Turing is a brilliant mathematician in World War 2 England. The English military is working to crack the code being used by the Nazi forces, and they turn to scholars to help break the code. Turing is able to do this, although his personal demeanor is abrasive to some. Through Turing’s brilliance, the Nazis are defeated. Turing’s work was kept at the highest level of secrecy.
Years later, local police discover that Turing has engaged in homosexual behavior, which was illegal in England at the time. Turing was mandated to undergo chemical castration, and he eventually committed suicide, with his punishers unaware of the debt they owed him for helping England defeat the Nazis.

The Adoption Connection  
Some adoptees may resonate with Turing’s feelings of being an outsider. Many teenagers, adopted or not, will resonate with Turing’s struggle to understand other people. Turing says at one point, “When people talk, they don’t say what they mean. You’re supposed to know. I never do.” And many teenagers who identify as homosexual may resonate with Turing’s fear of being discovered and mistreated. Turing also experiences a significant loss in his childhood, as a dear friend dies unexpectedly.

Strong Points
The film’s one repeated message is that “sometimes it’s the people who no one imagines anything of, who are the people who can do what no one imagines.” This is an encouraging message for young people who might feel underestimated by others. As a child, Turing is told this and takes it to heart. Years later, he passes it on to someone else. Good advice can be passed on from generation to generation.
Even though Turing is hard to get along with, his co-workers refuse to allow him to be mistreated by their boss. They stand with him, affirming that his skills are vital to success.
The film tries to encourage viewers to accept differences in others. A good question asked is, “If someone thinks differently than you, does that mean that they’re not thinking?”

Young (maybe 10-year-old) Turing loses a close friend, unexpectedly, when his friend dies while on school holiday.

Weak Points
One character tells Turing, “You really are a monster.”
Turing, desperately fearing being left alone, commits suicide. The fact that he is posthumously pardoned nearly 60 years after the fact doesn’t mitigate the sense of tragedy.

Some teens might find this film interesting, but it’s probably most likely to appeal to adults. It’s an interesting story that effectively communicates the injustice with which Turing was treated.

Questions for Discussion
What’s the best piece of advice or insight that you’ve ever been given?

Why can it be painful to keep secrets?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Penguins of Madagascar Adoption Movie Review

Years ago, in Antarctica, three young penguins noticed an abandoned egg. They broke away from a migrating group of penguins and bravely went to rescue the egg, in spite of being told by another penguin, “we lose a few eggs every year; it’s only nature.”

The rescued egg hatches into Private, a kind but clumsy penguin who immediately greets the other penguins, “Hello. Are you my family?”

Ten years later, the penguins operate as a military unit of sorts. They are captured by Dave, an octopus bitter at being displaced from a zoo by the penguins, years earlier. Dave intends to capture all of the zoo-living penguins in the world, and to use a Medusa Serum to make the penguins ugly and deranged. A team of secret agents called the North Wind is aware of Dave’s plans, and works with the penguins to thwart them.

The Adoption Connection  

Private is, more or less, the adopted brother of Rico, Kowalski and Skipper. He quickly identifies them as family. One of the penguins explains to him, clumsily, “You don’t have a family and we’re all going to die,” before actually beginning to function as family. Another penguin corrects the first one, “You know what, kid, you’ve got us, and we’ve got each other. If that’s not a family, I don’t know what is.”

Strong Points

Private does have a loving, loyal family in his penguin brothers.


Private is loved by his adoptive penguin siblings, but they mostly nurture him and value him as cute. Private, more than anything, wants to “be a valued and productive member” of the family, but they don’t seem to take him seriously for much of the film. They even refer to him as their mascot. And ultimately, Private’s cuteness is a key factor in what allows him to save the day. Ultimately, though, the other penguins affirm, “Looks don’t matter. It’s what you do that counts, and look at what you did. You are the most meaningful and valued member of the team.”

Dave has turned villainous because he felt unloved. He wants other people (well, penguins) to feel how he felt. The penguins actually treat him rather unkindly. I watched this film with a nine-year-old who commented afterwards that, if the penguins had been nice to Dave, Dave might have been nice back to them. It’s a valid point. At the end of the film, it seems that Dave will be liked by a little girl, and a penguin does express, “I hope you find happiness.”


Penguins of Madagascar is a good fit for kids ages 5-11. The penguins are, more or less, an adoptive family, but their adoptive status isn’t part of the plot; it’s just part of life. The movie also does open a way for parents to talk with their kids about some difficult feelings – feeling unvalued (like Private) or unliked (like Dave).

Questions for Discussion

What makes a family, a family?

Private felt like he wasn’t valued as a member of the family. Have you ever felt that way? What changed it for private? What changes it for you?

Have you ever felt like Dave, like people don’t like you? What was that like? Did it get better?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Labor Day Adoption Movie Guide

Adele is a depressed, single mother raising her young teenage son Henry in late-1980’s rural New Hampshire. While they are out shopping, Frank, a bloodied man, confronts Henry and uses Henry to impose on Adele for a ride. Once in Adele’s car, Henry demands that she take him to her own home. He shortly reveals that he has escaped from prison, where he was held for murder, although he maintains that the killings were accidental. Frank remains in their home for several days, hiding from the police. He quickly becomes part of the family, becoming a father figure to Henry and a husband figure to Adele. Frank and Adele plan to escape together to Canada with Henry, and to start a new life. Regardless of what the future holds, Henry’s and Adele’s lives are changed by their relationships with this dangerous stranger.

The Adoption Connection

Frank does develop a sense of caring for Henry, and Henry bonds to Frank very quickly. Many kids in foster care do seek to bond very quickly with adults who are kind to them, and this isn’t always safe.

Positive Elements

Frank does not live up to all of the stereotypes that might be held of an escaped convicted murderer. He is gentle to a boy with disabilities and patient and affirming to Henry. As his story is gradually revealed, Frank is shown to be not quite as dangerous as he initially seemed.


A girl suggests that it’s very easy to lie to authorities to get unliked adults in trouble.

A series of miscarriages led to the breakup of Adele’s first marriage.

Negative Elements

There are some very disturbing aspects to this film. Frank uses Henry to coerce Adele. Frank ties Adele up on two occasions. Frank and Adele both encourage Henry to lie and to keep secrets. There are lots of problems with Frank’s relationship with Adele.

Frank and Adele intend to have Henry leave all of his friends behind without even a farewell, because it suits their needs better.
One character strikes a physically disabled child.


While there is a benefit in challenging stereotypes, there are a lot of problems with Labor Day. Abusive relationships, infertility-fueled infidelity, scenes which threaten and sometimes depict prolonged domestic violence, and the negative ways in which Frank attempts to manipulate Henry are all very likely to be triggering or traumatic for some viewers. This one is probably a “skip” for most viewers, and a particularly risky choice for kids and most teens.

Questions for Discussion

Have any adults ever tried to make you do things you thought were wrong?

How can you tell whether someone is safe or dangerous to be around?

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