Tuesday, January 13, 2015

St. Vincent Adoption Movie Review

Maggie got more than she bargained for when she moved next door to Vincent. Maggie, the divorced mother of 12-year-old Oliver, initially experiences Vincent as a crass, rude crank. When she finds herself stuck in a difficult situation, needing to remain at work while Oliver is locked out of the house, she begs Vincent to watch Oliver for her. Vincent needs money, so he agrees begrudgingly. Vincent isn’t much of a babysitter. He teaches Oliver to gamble at the race tracks, and introduces him to Daka, a woman who he had paid as a prostitute but who has decided to become his housekeeper instead.

Oliver is a very polite young man, but he is picked on at school. Vincent sees Oliver getting bullied, and threatens his bullies. Later, Vincent teaches Oliver to fight, which ultimately results in Oliver breaking his bully’s nose. In doing so, Oliver earns the respect and friendship of his bully – and both realize that they share the experience of having absent fathers.

Vincent continues taking OIiver to the race tracks, but we learn that Vincent owes money from gambling losses, and that his creditors are dangerous. As they are about to attack him, Vincent suffers a heart attack. While hospitalized, he realizes that Daka, Oliver and Maggie have all come to care for him. He still pushes them away, and eventually ostracizes almost everyone. It’d be easy for Maggie and Oliver to try to walk away from that relationship. However, Oliver has a school assignment to research a living saint, and the school has defined a saint as “a person we celebrate for their commitment to others.” Because of Vincent’s positive impact in his life, Oliver decides to learn about Vincent. What he learns challenges others’ (and our) preconceptions of Vincent.

Around the same time, Maggie’s life becomes more stressful when her ex-husband files for custody of Oliver.

The Adoption Connection

Oliver was adopted. Maggie explains that, before she and her husband divorced, she learned that she was unable to have kids. Hating her ex-husband, she explains, “My fallopian tubes were twisted. I think they were recoiling from his sperm.”

Oliver’s father is largely absent from his life, because of his parents’ divorce. Oliver’s mother is largely absent from his life because of her inflexible job. This leaves Oliver in the care of Vincent, an unrelated adult who is primarily motivated by financial gain. Vincent does come to care about Oliver, but for much of the film he is largely disinterested in Oliver. In a way, this mirrors negative stereotypes that some have about foster care. Even in the seasons when Vincent is the most disinterested in Oliver, though, he still shows at least some nurturing (if misguided) care towards Oliver.

Strong Points

Oliver is a polite, insightful, sensitive kid.

Largely due to Oliver’s sensitivity, we learn that Vincent is not only a crank, but also a devoted husband to a dying wife who has lost her knowledge of him to Alzheimer ’s disease and a life-saving war hero. Oliver says, “If you dig deeper, you see beyond his flaws.”

When Vincent’s wife dies, Oliver tells him, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I like the brief conversation that follows. Vincent asks, “Why say that?” Oliver explains that it’s something to say when you’re “not sure what else to say.” And Vincent says something surprisingly wise, “What about, ‘What was she like?’ or ‘Do you miss her?’ or ‘What are you going to do now?’”


Oliver’s parents have divorced because of his father’s infidelity. Maggie talks about this so often and so broadly that Oliver seems to know all the details, which is probably unhelpful for a twelve-year-old. Oliver tells her, “I know he cheated on you. You’ll tell anyone. It’s also your Facebook status.”
It is sad to see Vincent throw away the mementos of his wife. He’s depressed, and this could be a depressing scene for some.

Weak Points

OK… for all the good points that we eventually do learn, Vincent is a pretty bad babysitter, and Maggie probably shouldn’t leave Oliver with him. Early on in their relationship, Vincent tells Oliver the house rules, “Go where I go, do what I say, do your homework, and don’t annoy me.” Vincent eventually steals money from Oliver’s bank account, which as far as we know is never discovered or recovered. In this film, it’s the kid who’s ultimately wise enough to see through the faults of a caregiver. Kids who have been abused or neglected may have felt themselves to be in a similar position, trying to see someone who is unkind to them in a positive light. But really, the burden of responsibility should be on adults. First parents, foster parents, and adoptive parents should be safe adults for kids.

The film shares about St. William of Rochester, the patron saint of adopted children. It also explains that St. William was killed by the boy he adopted. While the story is traditional (a quick search of Wikipedia shows that William is an actual saint who was indeed killed by his adoptive son), it’s not a particularly helpful symbol of adoption, and it plays on some largely irrational fears that some people have about adoption.


St. Vincent is an interesting, thought-provoking, and well-acted movie. Some of the content makes it a bad choice for most kids, but I think it is worth seeing for parents and older teens. It highlights the truth that people are often deeper than they seem. One of my favorite thoughts in any book I’ve read comes from Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” and “Speaker for the Dead” series – that if you fully know and understand a person, you will be bound to love them. St. Vincent captures that thought pretty clearly.

Questions for Discussion

Imagine you had been given Oliver’s assignment – to research someone that you celebrate for their commitment to others. Who would you pick?
Family assignment: It might be interesting for your kid to interview and get to know someone in your family, church, or community who is worth celebrating. To help sweeten the deal for your teen, you can omit the “paper writing and presentation” part of Oliver’s assignment.

Who do you know who is deeper than they seem to be at first glance? Are our preconceptions of people more likely to be overly gracious or overly judgmental?

What are some other ways Vincent might have been able to process his sadness at the loss of his wife?

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