- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on commonsensemedia.org.

‘Alpha Dog’

Rating: R for pervasive drug use and language, strong violence, sexuality and nudity.

Common Sense Media: Pause. For ages 17 and older.

(out of five stars)

Running time: 117 minutes

Common Sense review: Based on an actual 2000 murder case, “Alpha Dog” is part formal experimentation, part big-screen “America’s Most Wanted,” part showcase for talented young performers and part lament for “today’s youth.”

Director Nick Cassavetes’ movie begins with Eva Cassidy’s sorrowful cover version of “Over the Rainbow,” as home-movie-style images show children laughing and playing with their families and celebrating holidays. When one youngster points a toy gun at the camera, you get a sense of the film’s dire trajectory.

A cut to Sonny (Bruce Willis) reveals the film’s thematic concern. He asks an interviewer, “You wanna know what is this all about?” Although he asserts that most people will “say it’s about guns or drugs or disaffected youth,” from Sonny’s perspective, “It’s about parenting.”

While this states one of the film’s primary themes — that youngsters who behave badly are ignored repeatedly or poorly instructed by their parents — it’s also darkly ironic because Sonny is the father of the character based on real-life suspect Jesse James Hollywood, a drug dealer and bully named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch). Also a drug dealer and small-time crook, Sonny is hardly in a position to model good parenting.

The film then goes back in time, detailing the day-by-day chronology of the kidnapping and eventual murder of 15-year-old Zack (Anton Yelchin). Zack has the misfortune to be the half-brother of speed freak Jake (Ben Foster), whose inability to contain his habit, check his aggression or look after Zack leads to disaster.

Because Jake owes him money (a mere $1,200), Johnny takes an opportunity that comes up by accident: Zack has slipped out his bedroom window, looking to avoid a confrontation with his angry parents. Johnny and his crew — including Frankie (Justin Timberlake) — grab Zack off the street and haul him home, where they hold him for ransom.

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that this movie is absolutely not for children even though it stars Justin Timberlake.

Based on a true story, it focuses on older teens and twentysomethings who are “lost” in numerous ways: They use and deal drugs (some encouraged by parents who also smoke pot), have sex, drink, lie, cheat and commit all manner of violent acts, including abduction and murder.

Families can discuss: How are the movie’s parent characters ineffective? How does the younger characters’ behavior (violence, sex, drug use) reflect what they see on television and in their own homes? Do they have any other options?

How would you describe the characters’ goals? How do the girls and young women respond differently? (Compare, for instance, Julie and Susan.) Do you think starring in a movie like this will affect Justin Timberlake’s reputation or popularity? Why do you think he decided to take the part?

Sexual content: Nudity and many sexual situations.

Language alert: Relentless language full of curse words too offensive to print in a family newspaper.

Violence alert: Repeated graphic bloody violence.

Social-behavior alert: Children and young people are careless, mean-spirited and selfish as well as drug addicts; adults remain self-absorbed, remote and angry, serving as poor role models; the story is inspired by the real-life kidnapping and murder of one addict’s 15-year-old brother and the apathy of more than 30 witnesses.

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