Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Max: Too much violence, not enough love.

Max is a highly trained dog who serves alongside Marines in Afghanistan. He is particularly dedicated to his handler, Kyle Wincott. Kyle comes from a military family – his father Ray is an esteemed hero of a previous war.

Kyle’s unit is being investigated for possible involvement in arms dealing, and Kyle comes to suspect that his friend and fellow Marine Tyler is involved. Shortly after talking to Tyler about this, Kyle is killed after an unknown assailant triggers an explosion.

Now, Tyler has returned to Texas and has obtained work with Kyle’s father, who owns a storage facility. Max is traumatized by the loss of Kyle, but finds himself comfortable around Kyle’s younger brother, Justin. Ray and Justin both try to make peace with Kyle’s loss in their own ways, and Justin’s peace comes in part from his relationship with Kyle’s dog.

However, when Tyler tells Ray that Max was responsible for Kyle’s death, Ray decides that it’s time for Max to go.

The Adoption Connection

Max, Justin, mother Pamela, and Ray all experience the loss of a loved one. Although Max is a dog, his experience of loss might most closely resonate with some adoptees, especially viewers adopted from foster care – due to a violent situation, and with the influence of dishonest adults, he was taken away from someone he loved and trusted, and put into a tenuous relationship with new people in an unfamiliar space, threatened with the prospect of being sent away (or in Max’s case, euthanized), if he misbehaves.  Max is also used as a scapegoat by adults – just as sometimes families place blame unfairly upon foster children because they don’t suspect their own children.

Strong Points

Many children in foster care are diagnosed with PTSD. Max seems to have a canine version of PTSD. Adult viewers could find Max to be a helpful illustration of how trauma can impact psychology and behavior.

Pamela is consistent in affirming to Justin that she loves him – and that Ray loves him, too, even 
though he isn’t good at showing it.

Justin’s dad confesses a difficult truth to Justin – and the truth is instrumental in them building a functioning relationship. Ray says, “A hero always tells the truth, no matter what people think of them, and no matter what the consequences are.”

Justin, in his anger, blames Ray for Kyle’s death, telling him that if Kyle wasn’t trying to impress his father, he wouldn’t be dead.

Ray’s distance, critical nature, and inability to express emotions towards his son were uncomfortable to watch.

Weak Points

When Ray is displeased with Justin, he asks his wife, without seeming to be joking, “Are you sure this one’s ours?” Another character suggests that Ray doesn’t like his “light brown brothers.”

There’s a lot of gun violence.

*Spoiler alert ----
 Kyle was betrayed by Tyler. Tyler then threatens to kill Justin, and suggests that Justin’s parents won’t be safe, either. It could be very hard for young kids to see an armed authority figure be so untrustworthy.
End Spoiler *


Although a movie about a dog seems to be custom-made to appeal to kids, Max is too violent for most young viewers. Combat scenes are loud, but expected, but there’s even more personal violence after the war, where a trust adult threaten to kill a child and everyone he loves. This one’s probably best left to later teens, but it doesn’t seem particularly likely to appeal to them, either.

Similar Movies
Some other animal-centric movies that are more kid-friendly include: Paddington, Penguins of Madagascar, and Chimpanzee.  A film with some positive father-son interactions that’s more kid-friendly is The Boxtrolls.

Questions for Discussion After the Movie

Losses can divide families or draw them closer together. What makes the difference? What made the difference for Justin’s family?

How does understanding what Max has been through help you understand his behaviors? How does it impact your assessment of him? 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jurassic World Adoption Movie Review

For twenty years, Jurassic Park has drawn international crowds to its theme park, which features genetically re-created dinosaurs. However, attendance has dropped as the crowds have tired of seeing the same old dinosaurs. Hoping to renew interest in the park, operations manager Claire Dearing has facilitated the creation of a new dinosaur – the Indominous Rex, which combines genetic material from several new species into an inventive, dangerous creature. At the same time, Claire’s sister Karen has sent her two sons, Zach and Gray to spend time with Claire. When they arrive, Claire is very busy with the park, and so Zach and Gray are left to attend to themselves and, later, to fend for themselves.

The Adoption Connection

It’s not an adoption story, but Zach and Gray are a teen and pre-teen sibling set that do find themselves far from their parents and with an aunt that they haven’t seen in several years. Many adoptions – especially within the foster care system – are within the same family, with a child being cared for and adopted by a grandparent or an aunt or uncle. Also, the two siblings need to rely on each other in this unfamiliar situation, which might also resonate with any sibling sets that have traveled through foster care together. It also sheds light on how damaging it must be to separate sibling sets into different foster homes. When the world is so unstable, it’s good to have at least one person who has been constant throughout your life.

Strong Points

One character affirms that living things have value, not just functionality. He said it about dinosaurs, but it’s true about people, too. People (kids, too) don’t exist just to meet others’ needs.
Zach tries to comfort his frightened younger brother. Gray asks, “Will I be safe.” Zach assures him that earlier in life, “I protect you. Nothing’s gonna get you when I am around.” Gray challenges, “But you won’t always be around.” Zach’s response is a promise that he can’t be sure that he can keep (he’s being chased by a dinosaur, too,) but it is well-intentioned, “Yeah I am, I’m your brother. We’ll always come back to each other, no matter what.” It’s a good testament to the power of family – and the power of a sibling bond in particular.


There’s a lot of violence in this one. People get eaten by dinosaurs. Kids are shown in perilous situations. It could be frightening to young viewers who have experienced uncontrolled rage and violence earlier in their lives.
One character comments, “Every living thing in this park is trying to murder each other.” It’s a pessimistic view of life on earth, but could be scary to younger viewers.
It’s hinted that Zach’s and Gray’s parents might be about to get divorced. Gray confides to his older brother that he’s worried about it, and Zach responds, “It’s not up to you; there’s a point where you have to grow up.” It doesn’t seem like the theme is revisited afterwards.

One character offers an interesting perspective, “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.” It is helpful to remember that most behaviors make at least some sense within the context of the behaver’s world, for sure. But, for kids who have been abused, it might be too early to work on this nuanced view – they might still need to just hear the simple truth that the person who abused them was very, very wrong.

Claire is very inattentive – and actually, negligent – to her nephews. Neglect is one of the main reasons that kids come into foster care.

Weak Points

Claire tells a friend, “It’s OK to lie to people when they are scared.” While it is good to comfort scared children (and adults), lies are often found out, and can damage trust. And sometimes, telling someone that a fear is grounded in reality could help them prepare better, or even avoid a danger.


Jurassic World might appeal to kids, because kids tend to love dinosaurs. It’s actually quite violent though, and definitely has earned its PG-13 rating. It’s probably too scary for most kids under 11. The violence isn’t particularly realistic, so older kids might be able to handle it, although it’s still probably a bad choice for kids who’ve experienced violence previously. It seems best suited to teens 13 and up.

Questions for Discussion After the Movie

Do you think Zach is a good older brother to Gray?
Have you ever wished that your parent would pay less attention to you? More attention to you?
What have been some times when you’ve been afraid?


Like in San Andreas, a young protagonist’s parents are on the verge of divorce, but are brought back together by a shared, traumatic experience that threatens the life of their child. (Click here for the Adoption Movie Guide of San Andreas)

Like Frozen, this film features a strong, durable sibling bond. (Click here for the Adoption Movie Review of Frozen)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Inside Out Adoption Movie Review

Riley’s first memory is a happy one – her eyes open, and she sees her father smiling at her. The memory is recorded and stored in her mind. Years later, as an eleven year old, Riley’s mind is filled with memories, most of which are happy. Her memories (and her actions) are governed by five emotions that live inside her – Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear. Everything has been going smoothly until her parents decide to move. Riley leaves behind the Minnesota live she loves and moves to San Francisco where she must make new friends and acclimate to a new culture. It’s hard, and her emotions have a hard time coping. Throughout the months ahead, her emotions try to find themselves, and restore balance – and along the way, they try to figure out what purpose there is to Riley even having Sadness at all.

The short film that plays before inside out, Lava, is a story of a volcano longing for a companion. Will his dreams come true?

The Adoption Connection

While Riley does stay with her parents, she is moved from a familiar environment into a new, foreign, and uncomfortable one. The move is a very hard one for her, and for a time it looks as though she has lost her joy – and even her personality. Kids who have been in foster care may relate to her experience and how it impacts her. I’m also hopeful that adults who serve as foster or foster-adoptive parents might find the movie as a helpful way of conceptualizing what’s going on when their kid acts out. Most behaviors do make sense within at least one context, and Inside Out invites us to meet the context in which they make sense.

Strong Points

Inside Out is fun and imaginative enough to appeal to even young viewers, but intelligent, thoughtful, and psychologically sound enough to be meaningful and helpful and relevant to a broad range of viewers.

The movie offers a very interesting perspective on what makes us who we are. Then, Riley’s world is shaken by her move. That all happens before the title scene. Inside Out doesn’t waste any time.
Maybe it’s because of what I do for a living, but I’m fascinated by the thought of knowing what’s going on in other people’s minds and seeing the world through their own eyes. I could see young viewers coming away from Inside Out with a sense of feeling understood, understanding themselves, and also developing an interest in empathizing with others.

Inside Out shows that there are valid purposes for all of our emotions. It’s helpful for kids to know that no emotions are inherently bad.

Riley does something that most parents would call “very bad” (SPOILER: she tries to run away). Her parents don’t respond with anger, but with love, concern, and understanding. They don’t punish her, because they understand where she was coming from. I love how this film shows the reasons and emotions behind behavior. My hope is that parents and perhaps especially foster parents focus on understanding behavior, rather than simply trying to modify it. Mercifully, the film also lets us into the minds of Riley’s parents – parental responses to kids’ behaviors are also driven by emotions. We’re able to have grace for our kids and for ourselves when we understand that.

(Spoiler alert)
The film does encourage empathy. It also shows that sadness is not the same thing as despair. In fact Our sadness can be what connects us to others – they can be drawn by our sadness to help us. Alternatively, we can connect with sadness within ourselves to comfort them when they are sad. That point reminds me of two things – one, a Bible verse that says that we are able to comfort others in their suffering because of the suffering we experience, and this great 3-minute video by Dr. Brene Brown about empathy:

(end spoiler)

Riley’s mom puts some unfair weight on Riley, asking her to “keep smiling” so that Dad won’t be stressed or sad. By the end of the film, though, Riley is able to express her feelings to her parents, and they’re able to accept them. My only caution here would be to make sure that kids don’t take the “keep smiling to help your parents” as the film’s actual message, but a quick word from parents after the movie can probably avoid that misunderstanding.

There are some sad points where it looks like Riley is losing aspects of herself that are very important to her. I heard at least one kid in the theater crying.

Weak Points

I didn't see any weak points.


This is the best movie I’ve seen this year. It’s fun, engaging, psychologically sound, and therapeutically useful. It is fun and engaging, so it will entertain even quite young viewers, but it seems likely to be helpful to any families that want to be able to think about, or talk about, emotions. Inside Out gets a very rare universal recommendation from Adoption at the Movies – good for ages 3 all the way up to adults. Well done, Disney and Pixar.

By the way, I always stick around until the end of the credits. This is the first movie that the entire theater stuck around, and gave the movie two rounds of applause – first after the film ended, and again after the credits. I haven’t experienced a movie being appreciated in that way before.

Questions for Discussion

What do you think is the purpose of sadness?

Which emotions are strongest in you?

What are your core memories?

What if you could choose your dreams?

Related Films

In Big Hero 6 (which won Best Movie in the 2015 Adoption at the Movies Awards), Baymax sacrifices himself to save others. A similar theme is in this film. Click here for the Adoption Movie Review of Big Hero 6.      Click here for the 2015 Adoption at the Movies Awards.

Riley’s memories are stored in a bank. A similar concept is in Rise of the Guardians. Rise of the Guardians also creatively expressed that there’s more to people than what you see on the surface. It used nesting dolls to accomplish that. Click here for the Adoption Movie Review of Rise of the Guardians.

Joy and Sadness walk through a labyrinth in Riley’s mind which is at least visually similar to the labyrinth in The Maze Runner. Click here for the Adoption Movie Review of The Maze Runner. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

San Andreas Adoption Movie Review

Ray Gaines is used to keeping a cool head in crisis. As a former military rescue pilot, and now working for Los Angeles County as a helicopter rescue pilot, he regularly saves people from peril. His home life is painful, though. He is estranged from his wife, Emma, who has just started dating multimillionaire Daniel. His daughter, Blake, lives with Emma and is getting ready to leave for San Francisco. While Blake is in San Francisco with Daniel, the San Andreas Fault sets off a series of earthquakes, one of which is the strongest earthquake ever recorded. California is thrown into disaster. Around the same time, Blake is abandoned by Daniel. Hundreds of miles away from her parents, Blake tries to survive while her parents try to reach her.

The Adoption Connection

San Andreas is a disaster movie and not an adoption story, but here’s where I see some connection. Blake is not able to live with both of her parents. Although she does continue to live with her mom, she is also living with Daniel, a new potential father figure. When crisis hits, though, Daniel abandons her, and she must wait for her real parents to save her. It would be very possible for young viewers to come away from San Andreas with the unhelpful impression that your “real” parents are the only ones who love you, and new parents will just abandon you.

Strong Points

This movie highlights bravery and parental love. One of my heroes, Mr. Rogers, said that, in times of disaster you will see some people running towards the danger to help. To him, it was encouraging to see that people can be brave, courageous, and selfless. Ray is one of those people.

*Spoiler alert* It seems like Blake’s parents will get back together. They have fallen back in love as a result of working together to save her. She couldn’t live with both of her “real” parents until her “fake” parent abandoned her, bringing her “real” parents back together. I can imagine some kids in foster or adoptive families having fantasies along these lines, and I’m not sure that it’d be helpful to present a film where that’s what happens.

*Spoiler alert* Ray and Emma’s split stems from the fact that their other daughter died when she was drowned under Ray’s watch. He is upset at himself because, although he saves people for a living, he was not able to save his daughter. Later, he almost watches Blake drown before his eyes, and for several tense minutes he works to resuscitate her. Although she does survive, at one point it seems as though she has died, and Emma cries out, “Oh, my baby!” Ray and Emma are finally able to talk over their feelings about the loss of their daughter Mallory. Ray says, “I know you didn’t blame me. I just didn’t know how to deal with Mallory’s death. It was my idea to take her rafting that day. It’s different when it’s your own kid. The looks she had when she realized I wasn’t going to be able to save her… It was harder coming home to you (Emma). I should have let you in. I’m so sorry I didn’t.” This powerfully captures how feelings of guilt can damage relationships even after a traumatic event has happened (like aftershocks!). At the same time, though, this theme, and a couple scenes in particular, could be very traumatic for young kids and for parents who have lost their children.

We can be hurt by specific events, but also by our ongoing feelings of guilt about those events. Processing our feelings helps us avoid the ongoing damage of guilt and trauma – and that’s part of why therapy, or crisis counseling, or crisis debriefings are so important.  

It’s a disaster movie, so there are lots of genre-appropriate screams, crashes, and scenes of peril.  People die on screen. It’s what you expect from this kind of movie, but the chaos could be triggering for kids who’ve experienced and not yet processed real life chaos.

Weak Points

Someone makes a joke that suggests that people can’t be family if they don’t look alike.


San Andreas will probably appeal to late teens and young adults. It does offer a way for parents to talk with teens about how losses impact our lives. The scenes of disaster that you’d expect from a movie like this make it a poor choice for many younger viewers, especially those who’ve experienced chaos or violence, and it might also be a painful movie for parents who have lost children.

Questions for Discussion

What’s the healthiest way you’ve ever dealt with a loss? The least healthy? What made the difference?

Did Ray care for Blake more than Daniel because he was her biological father, or just because of the kind of person he was?

How can we rebuild from trauma?
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