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Focus on Independent Films
By Sister Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.


GARDEN STATE (A-3, R): A would-be young actor, Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff), goes through life as a struggling waiter. He lives an emotionless life because he has been medicated for years by his psychiatrist-father (Ian Holm), following a tragic childhood event.

Andrew and his parents are estranged on every level. When Andrew learns that his mother has died, he returns to New Jersey for the funeral. Afterward, he joins friends from high school, spending the day in a fog of foul language, drugs, girls and alcohol.

The next day Andrew goes to the neurologist because of headaches. Along the way he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a young woman who tries to hide the fact that she has epilepsy.

Andrew disposes of his medicines, tries to reconnect with his father and explores a relationship with Sam. His scummy friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) leads Andrew and Sam on an odd journey where Andrew learns that life is worth living.

Garden is not, technically, an independent movie. But this small film examines the significance of life for young adults who are alienated from family and have not connected to either society or institutionalized religion as a source for transcendent meaning or authentic spirituality. They have to find it in each other and the world around them.

Zach Braff, who plays Dr. Dorian in the NBC series Scrubs, is the star, director and writer of this film. Crude language, a sexual encounter, drug use; themes of life, love, truth, empathy, reconciliation and, ultimately, joy make this worthwhile viewing.

RAISE YOUR VOICE (not rated, PG): Terri Fletcher (Hilary Duff) lives with her family in Flagstaff, Arizona. This sweet girl who loves to sing in the school chorus and church choir has aspirations to attend a summer music camp in Los Angeles.

Her mother (Rita Wilson) and Aunt Nina (Rebecca De Mornay) are supportive. But her overprotective dad (David Keith) wants his little girl at home.

Terri’s brother, Paul (Jason Ritter), sends a DVD with Terri’s singing to the music school. In gratitude, she gives him two concert tickets as a gift for his high school graduation. But Paul is grounded after arguing with his dad.

Terri urges her brother to sneak out to the concert, and he encourages her to speak up for herself so she won’t be stuck forever in Flagstaff like their dad. When Terri is accepted to the music camp, her mom and aunt concoct a plan to send the girl without telling her dad.

Raise is directed by Sean McNamera (That’s So Raven; Even Stevens), a Catholic who cast Hilary Duff in her first film, Casper Meets Wendy (1998). The singer/actress then starred in the Lizzie McGuire series and film.

Christian music, symbolism and church are prominent in Raise, which shows faith, prayer and discernment as a normal part of a young person’s life. The tension between doing something good (going to the music camp and launching a career) and using the wrong way (lying to her dad), however, is never fully resolved. There are many points for parents and adolescents to discuss together. Some problem language and thematic elements; this wholesome, multicultural, somewhat saccharine, lively musical is a humorous coming-of-age film that will appeal almost solely to the ’tween-girl audience.

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (not rated, PG): As a high school student Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) lives in rural Idaho with his grandma (Sandy Martin) and his repressed brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell). Grandma has a pet llama and Kip spends all his time cruising chat rooms for the right girl. When Grandma goes away on a trip, Uncle Rico (John Gries), a disappointed football player and quasi all-round loser, comes to stay.

High school is social hell for the sweet but dorky Napoleon and friends: Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who speaks mostly Spanish, and Deb (Tina Majorino), a painfully shy and plain girl. When Pedro decides to run for class president, Napoleon resolves to help him.

While Grandma is gone, Kip invites a young woman from Los Angeles to visit him, and Uncle Rico starts selling kitchenware door-to-door, flirting with the ladies.

This one-dimensional tableau goes from one awkward scene to the next, documenting the painful inevitability of growing up. But it is really about kindness, friendship and the inner beauty of the soul that thrives, especially in Napoleon’s utter lack of self-absorption. I kept waiting for something to happen, and when it did all I could do was smile. Some problem language and thematic elements; a warm and funny movie that gently surprises you, like when you see an ugly duckling morph into a swan.

REALITY TV caught the popular imagination when Survivor debuted on CBS in 2001. Although it is supposedly unscripted and spontaneous, a colleague described it as “an editorialized version of one person’s or one production company’s view of a slice of life.”

Media educators assert that reality TV is actually created by the director and the editor, without the aid of a writer (jeopardizing the employment situation of many writers). This new development in entertainment seems to be growing by leaps and bounds, and sometimes without taste or a sense of human dignity (for example, ABC’s thankfully short-lived Are You Hot?).

The audience sees only a select fraction of what is taped or experienced by the tribes, apprentices, housemates, bachelors and bachelorettes. Thus, the term reality must be taken with a grain of salt.

Some television producers and advertisers have taken reality a step further. With the advent of TiVo and satellite PVR’s (personal video recorders), people can record their favorite programs and then speed through or delete commercials during playback.

To circumvent this, audiences can expect to see more and more product placement in programming, such as we already see in motion pictures. (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial featured Reese’s Pieces®; The Truman Show satirized the practice of product placement.) Brand-name products and logos become natural parts of the story and action. If we see it, we are likely to buy.

Three reality TV programs embody product placement in their totality. Airline (A&E, Mondays) is an entertaining half-hour advertisement covering the travails of Southwest Airlines employees dealing with travelers who range from endearing to outrageous, and neither the customer nor the company is always right. I think it’s hilarious, but I have to keep telling myself that this is one big commercial.

JAG (CBS, Fridays), which premiered in 1995, epitomizes and reinforces ideological product placement: the U.S. Navy and government.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (ABC, Sundays) renovates homes of needy and deserving families. It's very heartwarming, and they openly invite you to visit their Web site ( to check out every item that Sears has donated to the family—and buy one for yourself.

THE DUST FACTORY (A-2, PG): A teen-aged boy, Ryan (Ryan Kelley), hasn’t spoken since he saw his father die in an accident. When Ryan falls into a river while fishing, he enters a fantasy-dream world and comes to understand the mysteries of life and death. His grandfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and a young girl (Hayden Panettiere) help him on his interior quest. More for adults than children; Jungian analysts would have a field day with the symbolism. Mature themes and some frightening images.

SILVER CITY (A-3, R): John Sayles directed this less-than-subtle fictional satire of an inarticulate candidate for governor of Colorado (Chris Cooper) who is pro-death penalty, traditional family values, sanctity of life and right to bear arms. This film is a cynical guide for political euphemisms (cultural equilibrium = no handouts for the homeless; public information outreach = attack campaign) and corporate and environmental corruption. But there is food for thought here. Some problem language.

PAPARAZZI (O, PG-13): A violent revenge thriller about an actor, Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser), and the paparazzi who plague him and his family. When the paparazzi cause a horrific accident that injures his wife and son (reminiscent of the one that killed Princess Diana), Bo tosses morality to the wind and takes murderous revenge. I could only wonder what Icon Productions producers Mel Gibson and Steve McEveety (The Passion of the Christ) were thinking when they accepted this project. How could they not ask: What would Jesus do? Violence and strong language.

A-1 General patronage
A-2 Adults and adolescents
A-3 Adults
L Limited adult audience
O Morally offensive

USCCB Movie Review Line: 1-800-311-4222,

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