Saturday, February 28, 2015

Black or White Movie Review - Guest Post by Lori Holden

Though Black or White earns its adoption stripes through simple kinship adoption (Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer vie for custody of the granddaughter they share, Eloise, played by the luminous Jillian Estell), the bigger message for adoptive families is the devastating split a person can experience when divided in two by color, race, biology and/or biography. And how not dealing with tough emotions such as anger and grief rarely means they resolve on their own.


Eloise's mother (Kevin Costner's daughter) died during childbirth, and Eloise's father (Octavia Spencer's son) has been absent due to substance abuse. Still, Eloise's black and white families have formed a détente. Eloise lives with her well-off white grandparents in their tony home and neighborhood. In addition, Eloise has much access to the ebullient and extensive clan headed by her black grandmother, Rowena, who lives in South Central LA.

But the détente is upended with the sudden death of Costner's wife, Eloise's grandmother and primary caretaker.

On the race issue, some will dismiss the film as joining a long line of "white savior" films, such as The Blind Side and Losing Isaiah. Some may consider it patronizing.

But writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger), whose bi-racial nephew was the inspiration for Eloise, wanted to open up a dialog on race, even if it wasn't a perfect one. Late in the film, Costner's Elliot Anderson responds in a court scene with Binder's crystallized message. When asked if he has a problem with racial prejudice, Elliot replies, “Is that the first thing I notice when I see a black man? Skin color? Yes. It’s not my first thought that counts. It’s my second, third and fourth thoughts.”

Adoptees may note that this story focuses on the needs and wants of the grownups in a situation, more so than on the child (who, in Eloise, is notably without trauma issues for one who has experienced such loss). And that gripe would be warranted.

But this is also where the film shines. For it shows the grownups with all their foibles and flaws. It shows how their wanting the best sometimes brings out their worst. We see repressed emotions, addiction, loss, hubris, stereotyping, and urges to win no matter the cost.

Ultimately, we discover the key to redemption: allowing long stuffed-down emotions to be felt and dealt with. We see these nuanced and flawed people aim to overcome their Either/Or tendencies to embrace a Both/And paradigm for the girl who joins them together. (Perhaps instead, the film should have been titled Black AND White.)

In this, the film's flaws are also redeemed. Learning how to heal the splits inherent in adoption is a worthy endeavor for all grownups involved.

Lori Holden blogs from Denver at Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, written with her daughter's birth mom, is available in hardcover and e-book through Amazon or your favorite online bookseller.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Jupiter Ascending Adoption Movie Review

Jupiter Jones is a janitor who hates her life. When she visits an egg donation clinic, aliens attempt to abduct her. There is far more to her story than even she knows. *SPOILERS AHEAD*
Earth is a farm, and it is owned by Balem Abrasax, the descendent of the matriarch of the House of Abrasax. The House of Abrasax is an interplanetary financial giant; they manufacture a serum which promotes exceptionally long life. Their raw ingredients are humans. Jupiter Jones is the genetic duplicate of the matriarch, and so she is entitled to the family fortune – including ownership of the earth. However, her children seek to kill her in order to secure her fortune for themselves. Ultimately, Jupiter is forced to choose between saving her family, who has been taken hostage, or saving the world.

How Does This Connect to Adoption

Genetics are very important in this story. Jupiter’s genetics are the reason that she is involved in the drama. One character explains, “In our world, genes have an almost spiritual significance. They are our seeds of immortality.”

Jupiter also wonders if her parents’ painful lives have caused her pessimistic view of people.
Jupiter has no awareness of an important part of her life story.

Jupiter’s male cousin has convinced her to donate her eggs. He will get $10,000 and she will get $5,000; when she asks why the financial split is so unfair, given that it’s her egg, her cousin explains, “That’s capitalism.” She tearfully expresses that she is unable to go through with the donation; this scene seems potentially troubling to parents who have relinquished or lost children to adoption.

One character meets her mother “long after she’s passed away.” She shares that initially, her mother was murdered, and implies that she may have had something to do with the murder.

Strong Points

Jupiter struggles to embrace her identity; a character tells her, “It’s not what you do, it’s who you are.”


Jupiter’s father is murdered while he is defending his pregnant wife. The scene drew gasps from many in the theater with me.  

Jupiter falls in love with a man that she believes to be bad news. She explains that her compass is broken, and she relentlessly pursues (and ultimately gets) him. The movie seems likely to appeal most to teenagers, who might not need extra encouragement to pursue apparently unhealthy relationships. Jupiter eventually pledges marriage to an even less wise person.

There are some dark views expressed. A villain expresses, “Lies are the source of belief and hope.” Another character says, “The more you care, the more the world finds ways to hurt you for it.” Another character explains that human life “is like a pyramid. Some lives mean more than others.”

Weak Points

In many ways, this is a story about children plotting to kill their mother for financial gain. One character also (sort of) marries his mother’s reincarnation. Although Jupiter eventually exclaims that she is not their mother, the plot line could be troubling to some.

There is some male-on-female violence.


Jupiter Ascending feels like a mix between Star Wars, Transformers, The Matrix, and a theme park ride (there are lots of long, loud action sequences.) It’s best target audience is probably older teens, so long as the individual viewer won’t be bothered by the challenges and weak points mentioned above.

Questions for Discussion

In the film, some characters viewed “Time” as the most important commodity. Is anything more important to you than long life?

How important are genetics?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The 2015 Adoption at the Movies Awards

Welcome to the 2015 Adoption at the Movies Awards! It’s been a year full of cinematic releases, and many of them dealt with adoption, foster care, and related themes. In this online award ceremony, we pay tribute to the best of the best, the films and characters that captured adoption in a positive, entertaining, inspiring, and helpful light. The winners were selected by the readers of Adoption at the Movies.

You might have seen several of these films, and maybe you’ve missed some. As we’re approaching the Oscars, why not host an “Adoption at the Movies Awards” marathon, and spend a family movie night watching one or two of the best cinematic treatments of adoption.

This is our second annual Adoption at the Movies Awards. You can still see the first awards, too, by clicking here.

The red carpet is out, the seats are filled, and without further ado, it’s time for the awards.

Best Adoptive Parent or Adoptive Parent Figure

Many of this year’s films featured adoptive or adoptive-like families. This year, eight characters were nominated for the title of Best Adoptive Parent or Adoptive Parent Figure

The Nominees were:
Paddington – Mrs. Brown – When a lonely bear shows up at a London train station, it’s the matriarch of the Brown family who first takes notice of him. In an interesting parallel to foster care adoption, Mrs. Brown helps Paddington in his attempts to reunify with people who are almost like family, and eventually provides a family for him, herself.

St. Vincent – Vincent – Middle-aged Vincent is crass, rude and prickly, but he still agrees to babysit 12-year-old Oliver. In his own way, Vincent cares for Oliver, protecting him from bullies and teaching him how to protect himself. Oliver learns that there’s more to Vincent than his exterior – he has a caring, gentle side.

Annie – Mr. Stacks – Entrepreneur and mayoral hopeful Mr. Stacks initially took Annie into his him as a foster placement because he believed it would help his chances for election. However, Annie’s optimism and perseverance touched Mr. Stacks’ heart. He came to love her, and ultimately went to great lengths to protect her. Stacks was sensitive to Annie’s needs, and helped her overcome her challenges without shaming her for them. He also affirmed strongly that Annie’s place with him was a permanent one that couldn’t be endangered by anything Annie would do.
Aunt Cass – Big Hero 6 – Hiro and Tadashi lost their parents; later, Hiro lost Tadashi. While Big Hero 6 focuses on the relationship between Hiro and Tadashi’s robot Baymax, one of the pillars of constant support for Hiro is Aunt Cass. Cass is loving and encouraging to Hiro, giving him time to grieve his losses while also inviting him to move forward.

Fish – The Boxtrolls – Fish is a troll who is raising a human boy, named Eggs. Although his words are very limited, Fish is heartwarmingly tender and nurturing to Eggs. When Eggs begins to question why he does not look like a Boxtroll, Fish shares with Eggs the whole story of how Eggs came to be part of the Boxtrolls community, and part of Fish’s family. The Boxtrolls define a father as “someone who raises you, looks after you, and loves you.” Fish fits nicely into that box.

Splinter – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – The anthropomorphic rat, Splinter, taught himself martial arts. He found four turtles, and taught them how to be safe. Splinter explained, “I became their father, and they became my sons.” Splinter believes in his sons, reminds them that they must trust him, and encourages them to believe in each other. Part father and part sensei, Splinter has created a coming-of-age ritual for the turtles where he entrusts them with their trademark weapons. Splinter is nurturing, firm, selfless, encouraging, and wise.

Lord Mansfield – Belle – Lord Mansfield is the Lord Chief Justice in 1769 England. As the highest judge in all of England, he must rule on a case which threatens to disrupt the nation’s slave-based economy. He is also raising his two nieces, one of whom is Dido, the biracial daughter of Mansfield’s nephew and a slave. Throughout the film, Dido and her sister grow from children into young women, and Mansfield helps Dido grow into a woman who is able to value her heritage while living in a prejudiced society. Mansfield renounces slavery as something which is “not legal, neither is it right.” His refrain throughout the film is “Let justice be done.” Mansfield is just, but also merciful and loving.

Mr. Peabody – Mr. Peabody and Sherman – Mr. Peabody is a highly intelligent dog who has adopted Sherman, a seven-year-old human boy. As a young pup, Peabody waited to be adopted, but never was. He fought in court for the right to adopt Sherman, who he had found abandoned. Peabody explained that he never had a family, and wanted to provide one to Sherman. Mr. Peabody basically aged out of a group home, and managed to succeed as an adult, anyway. Remembering his own experiences, he tries to help someone in a similar situation. Peabody is a good father in many ways; he always considers Sherman’s best interest and promises that he will always be there for Sherman.

The Winner for Best Adoptive Parent or Adoptive Parent Figure is… Fish from the Boxtrolls. Fish raises, looks after, and loves the young human boy named Eggs. Fish is nurturing, educational, and shares Eggs’ adoption story fully with Eggs. Fish challenges his neighboring humans’ stereotypes of Boxtrolls, while also showing that fathers can be very nurturing.

Best Adoptive Family

An adoptive family is more than just the adoptive parent. In this category, readers voted to name the best adoptive family in this year’s films.

The nominees were:

The Penguins of Madagascar – Penguins of Madagascar – Skipper, Kowalski and Rico break away from a migrating group of penguins and bravely go to rescue a lost and endangered egg. The rescued egg hatches into Private, a kind but clumsy penguin who immediately greets the other penguins, “Hello. Are you my family?” One of the penguins responds, “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.” Private does have a loving, loyal family in his penguin brothers.
The Boxtrolls – Boxtrolls - The Boxtrolls raise a human boy named Eggs as one of their own, and one Boxtroll, Fish, takes a particularly nurturing, parenting role. A song in the end credits proclaims that some kids have families that look different than others, and that “we should be glad for the families we have and reach out to those who are on their own.”
Jonas’ family – The Giver – All of the families in Jonas’ community are adoptive families, and all parents must apply for children. Although they’re misguided, Jonas’ family does the best they can to help him understand the rules of the community and hope to help him succeed.

The Winner for Best Adoptive Family is… The Boxtrolls. As the film’s song proclaims, some kids have families that look different from others. The Boxtrolls certainly do – both in appearance, and in number. Eggs’ adoptive family is truly a community, and they all take care of him – and love him.

Special Achievement Award – Best Short Film - ReMoved

In only 13 minutes, ReMoved powerfully captures the emotional experience of a child in foster care. The filmmakers, themselves new foster parents, have created a massively popular, emotionally gripping video that has brought audiences to tears. Well-made enough to be widely circulated on social media, and clinically sound enough to have been incorporated into the training programs of foster and adoption agencies, the film is captivating and powerful. Congratulations to Nathanael and Christina Matanick and their team for producing the best adoption-related short film of the year. ReMoved Adoption Movie Review.

Special Achievement Award – Best Foreign Film - Ida
In this Polish film, a young novice nun in the 1960’s is preparing to make her lifetime vows. Before she can join the convent, her prioress requires her to seek out her aunt. The prioress understands the importance of personal history. Before allowing Ida to make a lifelong commitment of her future, she requires her to learn about her past. Ida’s access to her historical information does not come easily, and when it does come, it is not easy for her to accept -  but through it, she develops a fuller picture of her life, history, identity, and future. Ida Adoption Movie Review

Best Animated Movie

Adoption themes were prominent in several animated films this year. Films geared towards younger viewers are still often very powerful; when such films include adoption in their stories, kids who have been adopted often relate and react strongly. When films handle adoption well, it’s worth celebrating.

The nominees were:

Penguins of Madagascar – This colorful movie shows a sort of adoptive family of penguins working together to save penguinkind, while also highlighting the desire of the youngest member of the family to feel and be valuable – and not just a mascot or charity case.

Big Hero 6 – This beautiful Disney/Marvel superhero origin story features adoptive parent Aunt Cass. It is powerful and entertaining, mixing humor and action with gripping emotions. Child prodigy Hiro has lost his parents and his brother. He processes his grief, keeps his brother’s memory alive, works to allow himself to experience losses, and comes to understand and practice the power of forgiveness.

The Boxtrolls – This stop-motion animated film shows that families can be families even if they look different from each other. The Boxtrolls are loving and nurturing, and do not fit the stereotypes that the human community has of them.  The human boy being raised by the Boxtrolls eventually reunifies with his father, and becomes a significant part of the newfound peace between humans and Boxtrolls.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman – This time-travelling story features Mr. Peabody, the canine adoptive father of young Sherman. Peabody’s adoption of Sherman is motivated by Peabody’s own childhood, where he wished to be adopted, but wasn’t. Peabody fought in court for the right to adopt Sherman, and continues to fight for the right to be allowed to keep Sherman. Although Peabody doesn’t express love easily, he is a good father in many ways. He always considers Sherman’s best interest, and promises that he will always be there for Sherman.

The Winner for Best Animated Movie is… Big Hero 6. Although it’s an animated film, Big Hero 6 is one of the most powerful and positive portrayals of a young man overcoming great pain in order to thrive. Big Hero 6 was released with Feast, a short, light-hearted film that explores loss of relationship from a dog’s point of view. Big Hero 6 shows that animated films can be as entertaining, as powerful, and as important as their live-action counterparts.

Best Movie

We close out the Adoption at the Movies Awards by seeing which film was voted by our readers as the best adoption-relevant film of the year.

The nominees were:

Annie – The abandoned and mistreated foster child, Annie, remains perpetually optimistic and hopeful about life. She hopes to reunify with her parents. Although this never happens, she warms the heart of entrepreneurial Mr. Stacks, and finds a forever family with him. Along the way, plenty of catchy, upbeat songs are mixed with powerful moments. Stacks learns that Annie can’t read; he doesn’t shame her, but instead provides her with an opportunity to learn how to do so, and she thrives. He sees Annie getting ready to leave his home; her experience has taught her that when stuff goes wrong, you have to leave your placement; he assures her that she can stay with him. 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.

Big Hero 6 – In the futuristic city San Fransokyo, a young genius named Hiro Hamada is inspired to join his older brother Tadashi as a student a prestigious robotics department. Hiro is inspired, in part, by his brother’s invention – an inflatable, personalized health-care robot named Baymax. However, an explosion in the university takes the life of Hiro’s brother, leaving Hiro depressed and disinterested in technology. An interaction with Tadashi’s robot compels Hiro to resume his training, and also reminds him that Tadashi is still with him, in his memory. Through his work, Hiro makes friends with Tadashi’s former colleagues – and with Baymax; together, they work to uncover the mysterious cause of the explosion that claimed Tadashi’s life. Hiro is familiar with loss in his family. Both of parents died before the movie, and he and Tadashi are being raised by Aunt Cass, the single sister of one of their parents who lives above her coffee shop. When Tadashi dies, Aunt Cass is the only family that Hiro has, until he eventually finds a connection with Tadashi through Baymax’s programming. After Tadashi’s death, Hiro exhibits understandable and realistic depression, and finally recovers through the love of family and friends, memories of his brother, and his own efforts. He can provide a model of recovery from loss. At one point, Hiro even faces the loss of his brother in order to explain it – sensitively and sadly, but honestly – to his robot companion Baymax. Hiro tells Baymax that Tadashi is gone. Baymax asks when he will return. Hiro replies, “He’s dead, Baymax.” Baymax comments that Tadashi was healthy and should have lived a long time. Hiro answers, “People say he’s not really gone as long as we remember him, but it still hurts.” It’s a very honest and direct discussion of death, loss, and sadness. Baymax calls several of Hiro’s friends in an effort to help Hiro find happiness. Also, because Baymax was programmed by Tadashi, he reflects Tadashi’s personality traits of selflessness and courage; this helps Hiro develop forgiveness. Aunt Cass, the boys’ aunt who has become their adoptive mom, is a steadfast and loving parent to them.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Years ago, two scientists worked together to develop a mutagen which would be valuable for healing sick people. Their test subjects were four turtles and a rat. Now, a gang called the Foot Clan is terrorizing New York City, but the gang is thwarted by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – the former test subjects.  The rat and four turtles that had served as test subjects for the scientists were saved from the fire by the researcher’s daughter.  The mutagen that had been injected into them caused them to grow in mind and stature until they became anthropomorphized. They’re basically humans. The rat, Splinter, developed more quickly than the turtles (Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo). He raised them and trained them in the martial arts. He calls them “my sons,” and refers to himself as their father. Splinter explains that he had to show the Turtles how to be safe, “So I became their father and they became my sons.” Splinter is nurturing, firm, encouraging, selfless, and wise. The Turtles’ calling card is an ancient Japanese symbol for “family.” It feels very meaningful. Later, one character notes that they stuck together because “that’s what family is for.”

Earth to Echo - Tuck, Munch, and Alex are junior-high friends who have big plans for their last night together. Their neighborhood is about to be evacuated for the construction of a bypass. The loss of their neighborhood is significant to each boy, because each of them feels somewhat displaced. Alex is a foster kid, who Tuck says “has been moved all over.” All three of them are about to be moved away from their homes, and away from each other. Recently, their cell phones have been acting strange, displaying unusual designs. The boys decode the designs as a map, and decide to spend their last night together trying to discover what is causing the phones to act strange. They follow the map into the desert and discover Echo, a scared, tiny alien who just wants to go home. Alex is a foster kid. He’s been moved around from home to home. Alex is a great example of a positive character in foster care. He has strength and weaknesses, and the experiences he has had in foster care both give him vulnerabilities and newfound strengths. Alex is not portrayed as helpless or as heroic. He is a good kid who happens to be in foster care. He fears abandonment because of what he has experienced, but he is loyal, brave, forgiving, and dependable. Alex is also the first of the boys to reach out and connect with Echo. The joy on Alex’s face when he realizes that Echo is trusting him and communicating with him is priceless. Alex teaches Echo how to use slow breathing to soothe himself while he’s scared. Alex also refuses to leave Echo behind when Echo is in danger of being caught; he explains, “I know how it feels to be left. I’m not leaving him. I know how it feels. We’re all he’s got.” At one point, the boys are faced with a decision – to take a huge risk and allow Echo to return home, or to play it safe. Alex is the first one to move towards sending Echo home. As Echo prepares to leave, Alex tells him, “I don’t really know how to say goodbye, so I’m not going to. I’m your friend. Even when you think I’ve forgotten.”

Belle - In 1769 England, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice and highest judge in all of England must rule on a case which threatens to disrupt the nation’s vast slave-based economy. Bound by the codes of the aristocracy, Lord Mansfield is also raising two of his nieces, Elizabeth and Dido. Dido’s inclusion in his household has caused a scandal because Dido is the mixed-race daughter of Mansfield’s nephew and a slave. All of England waits as Mansfield prepares to rule on what is legal and on what is right. Even as he wrestles with the legal issues set before him and struggles with the societal norms imposed on all aristocracy, Lord Mansfield’s love for Dido is obvious. Ultimately, he overrules societal norms and allows Dido to marry a man who respects and embraces all aspects of her identity and Mansfield also condemns the slave traders’ position as both illegal and morally wrong. One aristocrat takes a fancy to Dido, saying that he can forgive her bloodline. Dido ultimately rejects him saying that she wants a husband who does not see forgiveness of her heritage as necessary. She does not apologize for her race, heritage, or paternal history.

The Winner of Best Movie of the Year is… Big Hero 6. Many young viewers touched by adoption will be able to resonate with the pain Hiro feels at the loss he’s experienced. They will also be able to see that Hiro has a loving adoptive parent in Aunt Cass, who has raised him for ten years. Most importantly, Hiro shows that with help from friends, family, good memories, and good choices, a young person can overcome great loss to find a meaningful and positive life. Congratulations to Disney and Marvel for this excellent film.

That wraps up this year’s Adoption at the Movies Awards. Please check out last year’s awards, and keep coming back to Adoption at the Movies for a new review every Tuesday!
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