"Men, Women & Children" is a disconcerting but not inaccurate tableau of 2014's technology-driven Western culture. Very much time-specific in its details but largely symptomatic of where we are headed in the future, the film pushes buttons while seeking to explore big issues about communication and our society at large. Despite sharing certain similarities with 2013's gravely underseen "Disconnect
," writer-director Jason Reitman (2011's "Young Adult
") and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson's (2010's "Chloe
") filmic microcosm distresses and engrosses in exactly the intended way. Some central characters are less developed than others and a few plot points of convenience pop up near the finish line, but the picture's unflinching depiction and lack of answers give it an exceedingly real urgency.
In an era where instant gratification is advertised as being but a cell phone or mouse click away, a dozen or so Austin residents are feeling their way around the challenging landmines of parenting and adolescence. Little by little, Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen Truby (Rosemarie DeWitt) have seen the passion in their marriage evaporate over the years. As both are tempted by the idea of cheatingshe through a website specializing in affairs, he via an online escort servicetheir virginal teenage son, Chris (Travis Tope), has become adversely addicted to porn. Single mother Donna Clint (Judy Greer) once had aspirations to become an actress, but now spends her time building 15-year-old daughter Hannah's (Olivia Crocicchia) Internet fanbase with a gallery of sexually suggestive photographs. Meek high school sophomore Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris) spends her days hiding a serious eating disorder from her family as her search for affection leads her into the bed of insensitive older classmate Brandon (Will Peltz).
Fiercely overprotective mother Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner) obsessively monitors daughter Brandy's (Kaitlyn Dever) phone and computer usage, ignorant to the fact that her daughter is conscionable, well-adjusted and deserving of trust. When Brandy meets Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), a BMOC-turned-pariah who has just quit the varsity football team, they find themselves connecting face to face in a way which everyone else they know has lost sight. Still unable to come to terms with his mother's abandonment of he and father Kent (Dean Norris), Tim has recently experienced an existential epiphany upon seeing Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot." He isn't sure if there is a purpose to his life anymore, but he knows he doesn't want to live it the way he once did.
Based on the novel by Chad Kultgen, "Men, Women & Children" grapples with how the world has changed for everyday people since the advent of the Internet and social media. Is it better, worse, or just different? How about a little bit of all three? While many relationships now take place predominately through texting and Facebook and can be a positive way to stay in touch, such forms of communication can also be abused and place a wall between friends and family. So can the web itself, creating a fantasy reality for those not willing or able to face the real thing. Director Jason Reitman builds an expansive scope for a story centralized to a single Texas town, approaching his thorny subject matter from multiple angles (one that is noticeably missing, however, is the issue of bullying). Whenever it seems as if the script is edging toward preachy moralizing, Reitman and co-writer Wilson pull back and move in a different direction. Eavesdropping on these characters in private moments they do not show to those around them is uncomfortable at times, but undoubtedly honest and insightful.
It must have been tempting for Paramount Pictures to advertise "Men, Women & Children" as an "Adam Sandler movie," but he is but one in a large interwoven ensemble. The usually comedic Sandler (2014's "Blended
") has tackled a handful of dramatic roles in years' past, but this is as natural and confident as he has been since 2002's "Punch-Drunk Love
." As Don, Sandler is intentionally reserved and sad-eyed, a middle-aged man worn down by a suburban existence that he wishes matched the idealistic vision he holds in his mind. As wife Helen, Rosemarie DeWitt (2012's "Promised Land
") finds layers of guilt, remorse and excitement in essaying a woman who no longer believes she is desirable and wanders outside her marriage to find the carnal spark she feared she had lost. Judy Greer (2013's "Carrie
") is exceptional as Donna, a failed performer who goes about selling her daughter's talents by totally misguided means. Her wake-up call, when it comes, is riveting, and her character's regrets and eventual reclaiming of responsibility over Hannah is played with a low-key poignancy and strength.
The heartbreaking Elena Kampouris (2013's "Labor Day") is impossible to look away from as Allison, in the throes of anorexia and uncertainty, while Jennifer Garner (2014's "Draft Day
") digs into her infuriating role without making her a caricature. Garner's Patricia loves her daughter, but her one-track goal to keep Brandy safe has turned her into a smothering, boundary-breaking, emotionally abusive transgressor. Kaitlyn Dever (2013's "The Spectacular Now
") and Ansel Elgort (2014's "The Fault in Our Stars
") portray the most even-keeled of all the characters on screen, and, while Brandy and Tim are dealing with their own respective issues, the bond they form is healthier than any other relationship in sight. How their coinciding subplots simultaneously come to a head in the third act is the one major false note in the story, stinking of contrivance at a point when the narrative didn't need it. The treatment of Tim's computer gaming is also too on the nose, with the script not making the necessary connection between this out-of-control hobby and his grief over his mother walking out on the family.
So what does "Men, Women & Children" wish to ultimately say about social forms of technology and the public's mounting compulsion for information? While Reitman has no tidy solution to his modern snapshot of life nearly fifteen years into the twenty-first century, he does care a great deal about his characters. His sympathy shines through in the care and concern he shows for them and their messy journeys toward self-enlightenment. The cast does top-notch work across the board, each performance absent of artifice, while Eric Steelberg's (2010's "Going the Distance
") slick, unshowy cinematography and Bibio's ruminative, folksy score affectingly complement the film's humanistic vitality. Regardless of its errant imperfections, stirring conversation-starter "Men, Women & Children" is potent filmmaking about something.