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My Family and Film: Finding the Starter R's

Currently the big family film debate around Denny Schnulo's house is when can the kids watch R-rated movies? And which movies? And why those movies?

Denny Schnulo began his writing career at age eleven with the release of his first collection of poems to the kids on the school playground. Believing that first hand reports are always best, he spent his early adult years living and working throughout the world. His writing today is informed by people he met and things they did together. Follow Denny on Twitter: @DennySchnulo

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Film is a full contact sport around my house. Angry disagreements related to a film or films in general are not uncommon. So maybe My Family and Film is a bit of an innocuous title, but Violently Insane American Family of Film Buffs is too wordy.

Currently the big film debate around my house is when can the kids watch R-rated movies? And which movies? And why those movies?

I inflamed this family dispute by watching The Interview with my 15 year old son. We were home alone, it was Saturday night, and it seemed like a good guy's night film. Besides, I had introduced him to Monty Python and the Holy Grail a few months earlier, and he got it. He really truly understood and immensely enjoyed the humor.

This is the young man that over analyzes every family film, out loud. He is a left-brain logic geek, born to be an engineer lad and no film has ever achieved the required "suspension of disbelief." But watching The Holy Grail, he was as helpless in the face of rampant silliness as his old man. The Interview seemed to be similar fair.

I squirmed through it without too much embarrassment or regret. My son took it all in with poise and composure, but clearly I had made a bad decision. It wasn't the language, I've always maintained the George Carlin philosophy about cursing, "There are no bad words. Bad thoughts, bad intentions, and words." I focus on what motivates the swearing, if it's humor, it's harmless.

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My discomfort during the film centered around vividly suggestive and twisted references to things and situations that are funny with your high school or college buddies, and no one else, ever. Certainly not proper fodder for quality father/son time. But we made it through the movie, enjoyed a few real belly laughs together, and really did bond over the, "Don't tell your mom," gambit.

The flaw in the plan was obvious. The frequency of Holy Grail references we'd spewed out the past few months was so high the rest of the family proclaimed them henceforth verboten. In The Interview, James Franco says, "They hate us cause they ain't us," to which Seth Rogan replies, "What's an anus got to do with it." C'mon, that had to come out at the most appropriate/inappropriate conversational moment.

It did. My son and I laughed uncontrollably and my wife discovered our secret. Who blew our cover is not important; it was damn funny and had to be done. My wife didn't speak to me for a week.

Once the silent treatment wore off and enough time had passed to make the whole thing at least slightly humorous, the debate began. My 13-year-old son wanted to know what the big deal was about two years that meant the oldest could watch but not him. "He's my brother, I know everything he knows. He can't keep his mouth shut."

This led my 9-year-old daughter to assume the middle child had won the debate so she whined, "It's not fair they get to watch all the movies with you guys and I have to go upstairs and watch Frozen again by myself." Let me be clear, Frozen was her choice, not ours. We are not cruel parents.


The Decision Process

Like most American families entertainment, particularly film, is a big part of our shared experiences. Other than the occasional sitcom, films are the rare occasion when we are all there, sharing the same thing. Except of course, all to often, our poor daughter. Actually we do a G for one out of every four films and she gets to watch a fair share of PG's.

My wife and I were forced to deal with the R situation or risk losing the only hand-held-electronics free, fully mutual focus our family ever sees. We approached via standard analytic techniques.

First, why was a film rated R? Violence? Sex? Drugs? Language? The nebulous "Adult Situations?" And which of those were we squeamish about anyway? Was it fine for the 15-year-old to see blood, gore, and violence? He self censors that stuff, wouldn't enjoy it, so he wouldn't watch it. He won't even hunt with me.

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But my 13-year-old hunts with no qualms as long as he's killing something he's gonna eat. Would it be okay for him to see a film with excessive gore and violence? He's seen plenty of actual animal gore. But he's also by far the most empathic and emotional child, the one that always tears up first during a movie. Again, self censor, he would have no interest in a gory flick.

Which leaves the strange truth that my 9-year-old, goth-focused daughter is the one that would enjoy a slasher film. She's watched The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride, and Coraline so many times we checked on her with the school counselor. He can't explain it but assured us she's a wonderful, well-adjusted young lady whose nickname is "Everybody's Friend."

Obviously this was not an easy, one-size-fits-all decision. It would be a film-by-film, kid-by-kid decision. This complexity assured the continuation of the why him and not me debate. It also promised a joyless work level for my wife and I. We considered the US Constitution's approach to religion, either they were all okay or none of them were, but that seemed lazy parenting in this case. Besides, there are a lot of damn good R-rated films we want to share with our kids when they're ready.

And who are these film rating board people to tell us what's appropriate for our kids to watch anyway? Go watch the original Bad News Bears and tell me that wouldn't be an R film today. It came out PG-13 and is full of blue humor. Hell, Matthau drinks a case of beer on the mound while pitching batting practice to 11 and 12 year olds. I love that film.

So where does all this leave us? Nowhere and everywhere like so many other parenting conundrums. Responsible parents have to do the hard work of identifying what's appropriate in their own mind and what's appropriate for each individual child based on who they are. The Film Industry can provide us a guideline, but it's our job to apply it responsibly. This duty has set me and my wife on a constant search for the elusive "Starter R" films, a silly concept we came up with worthy of Monty Python, and that made this whole thing worth the effort.

More articles by Denny Schnulo
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