* Great Sociological Summer Movies *
Originally Published: 6/29/2018
Contributors: Matt Reid
Here are several movies from this past year I found to be sociologically stimulating as well as wonderfully entertaining. Most of the movies I profile below share a common theme of dysfunctional family life, which largely reflects my academic training in gender, sex, and deviance. As such, I welcome your feedback and encourage you to submit a brief synopsis of related sociological material in these films or others. I will add to this page as I receive submissions and further develop my own thoughts. I particularly welcome reviews of Get Out (2017) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017). While I enjoyed these films, I think someone else can do them more justice than I could in a review. Email your submission to PopularSociology@gmail.com along with how you would like to be credited.
All films are available on DVD, Blu-ray, and/or streaming.
The Florida Project
2017, 1h51min, Available for free with Amazon Prime
By far, this was my favorite film of 2018. Though it was shunned by mainstream awards committees, I bet the sociologist in you will find this more true-to-life than any other film from last year. Furthermore, this would be an excellent movie to show to students of sociology because it exhibits so many concepts and social problems. Yet what makes this film particularly beautiful is that the characters exhibit agency and empathy in their complex relationships.
First of all, the cinematography of the film is stunning; the audience is like a “fly on the wall”, witnessing the everyday lives of the characters in a welfare motel outside of Disney World. We follow a group of children as they are given free-reign to play in the impoverished environment. Perhaps the most evident sociological themes here relate to raising children, particularly from a social class perspective. Middle-class children are said to experience concerted cultivation— a hectic pace of structured activities said to equip the child with portfolios of experience (e.g., Piano practice, cub scouts, soccer teams, play dates, etc.). Juxtapose this with working-class parents, who are said to value natural growth, essentially taking a hands-off approach to their child’s development and social life. It is this laissez-faire approach to parenting that is so brilliantly depicted in the movie.
The children who live in the motel explore their environment virtually free of any supervision while their parents are at work or making money through other illegitimate means. Being from deviant families and living in a place with less-than-exemplary people, it is no surprise that the children witness and engage in deviance themselves—lying, stealing, burning down abandoned apartments, and even aiding their parents in illegal financial pursuits. One issue this film portrays quite vividly is the struggle of single working mothers. Whereas the U.S. is said to be a pro-natalist country, the inadequacy of our policies and programs is painfully depicted here. The motel is essentially a refuge for those who have fallen through the cracks of woefully insufficient support services. Furthermore, the film does not depict these working poor as negligent or powerless, but rather as people fighting to maintain a dignified life in the face of tough times.
While any brief description of the film may paint the setting and characters as delinquents engaged in a destructive lifestyle, what makes this film beautiful are the extraordinary acts of kindness, love, and mutual support. For example, arguments between characters often later give way to sharing cigarettes and other small acts of compassion. This demonstration of empathy is evident in director Sean Baker’s other films as well, most notably Tangerine (2015).
2017, 2h, Available for free with Hulu
This scripted film depicts the rise and fall of Tonya Harding through documentary-style “interviews” with her family and friends. Perhaps the best figure skater of her day, Tonya Harding’s lack of cultural capital distinguished her from her peers. While her style was popular among the unwashed masses, her risqué outfits and confrontational demeanor typically cost her the respect of the judges, thus hindering her advancement in the sport. Tonya’s life is marred by “the incident” where her main competitor is disabled by a pair of amateur hitmen. The film captures the iconic scene nicely as well— whereas crimes are usually depicted smoothly in film, we are treated to the sloppy reality of the incident and the sheer stupidity of those responsible. Though how much Tonya knew about the incident is a controversial issue, the consequence is that she is banned for life from the sport to which she had dedicated the prime of her life. The film portrays Tonya as more of a victim than a monster, and while I am aware some people were put off by that perspective, this is nevertheless a fantastic movie.
Alison Janney (winner of best-supporting actress) provides a tour-de-force performance as LaVona Harding, a tough-love mom whose persistent abuse of Tonya is contrasted with brilliant one-liners and a dedication to Tonya’s success in ice skating. In fact, physical and emotional abuse are central themes of this film, particularly that of intimate partner violence (be advised, there is *lots* of hitting). But the film moves quickly, is produced in an innovative manner, and I wanted more after it was over.
For those with more refined tastes in cinema, I would recommend Phantom Thread. At the heart of the film is a male dressmaker with mommy issues. The fictional character of Reynolds Woodcock is renowned for his designs among the British elite in the 1950s, but his occupational prestige has come at the cost of interpersonal relationships. One of the key themes throughout the film is Reynolds’ inability to handle conflict, as evidenced in a series of girlfriends who are “dismissed” once the initial lust turns to dull interaction and the occasional quibble. In general, the people who surround Reynolds work in accordance to his strict routine and obsessive rituals. Anything that violates Reynolds’ worldview seems enough to deeply upset the him to the point of making him incapable of accomplishing any work. While I did not see much sociology in this film per se, Daniel Day Lewis delivers another (and reportedly his last) brilliant performance. There is one scene near the beginning of the film that may spark some discussion-- After Reynolds notices a wealthy woman misbehaving in one of his precious dresses, he demands it back and when refused, sends his assistant to retrieve the dress off the woman’s body while she is sleeping. I think the scene shows how much Reynolds is married to his work, so much so that he feels the need to control how the garment is seen in public.
2017, 1h34min, Available for free with Amazon Prime
A coming of age film set in the mid-2000s, Lady Bird follows the senior year of a student as she resists the soul-crushing conformity of her Catholic high school. Several key themes in this film are deviance, identity, and social class. Lady Bird comes from a working-class family experiencing downward mobility which sets her aside from the more privileged students at her private school. As a result, she periodically attempts to pass as economically-secure, and nowhere is this more evident than in her pursuit of popular friends. The trope of “being true to one’s self” is well developed in this film, and we witness the tensions of identity management in both the private and public spheres. For example, Lady Bird has a very close relationship with her overbearing mother who comes to feel betrayed by Lady Bird's aspirations for social mobility. These parental pressures are mirrored in the rigidity of Lady Bird's Catholic school. Yet unlike most films that morally imply changing oneself is a negative, insincere process, this film refreshingly shows us how embracing difference can be both empowering and destructive. Lady Bird may be able to escape the constraints of her home environment, but this creates much tension as she attempts to transcend her socialization.
The Shape of Water
I tried my best to give this film a serious watch, but after an unnecessary scene where the fish monster eats a cat, I becomes totally sickened and found myself cheering for the creature’s demise. If this film was supposed to inspire some message of interspecies kinship, it severely misses the mark. Nevertheless, the film is well-acted and the production elicits a sense of a magic. Much of the sociology we see in the film revolves around issues of gender, sex, and sexuality— the subjugation of the cleaning ladies in the male-dominated research site, the mute woman who falls in love with the fish monster, the gay guy who carefully navigates the closet as he searches for love, and the sadistic military officer who believes washing one’s hands after urinating is a sign of failed masculinity. There could be more, but again, they kill a cat… #TwoThumbsDown !