By sheer force of happenstance (okay, that’s probably not really a force and if it is it’s certainly one of the weaker interactions) our movies for the past week related the stories of screwed up kids, misfits trying to find their way through this mystery called life…

The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985)

This was actually the first time I’d ever seen The Goonies. I think that if I’d seen it when it came out (and if it had come out a few years earlier) I would have loved it. A group of misfit kids, led by the shy Mikey Walsh search for pirate treasure so they can help their parents buy their homes, which are about to be demolished to make room for a golf course. It’s a sweet, mostly innocent tale of kids caught up in a caper being run by bumbling adult criminals. The kids aren’t too screwed up in this one, but they don’t really fit in either. Finding buried treasure makes up for a lot, though. Three stars.

Thumbsucker (Mike Mills, 2005)

Thumbsucker is so named because Justin sucks his thumb, which is a problem when you’re seventeen. This makes him a screwed-up kid. Justin is smart, but lacks confidence and over the course of this bizarre comedy/drama he tries several solutions including spiritual ones under the guidance of a weird zen dentist dude played by Keanu Reeves. He experiments with ADHD meds and self-medication, trying out different personas on his journey to discover who he is. Justin’s battle to stand free of his thumb is an interesting, at times funny, sometimes flat movie that seemed longer than it was, but ultimately worth the watch. Three and a half stars.

Back to the Future III (Robert Zemeckis, 1990)

Last week we saw Back to the Future II, so this week we had to wrap it up. Back to the Future III is the least interesting of the trilogy, probably because it doesn’t really explore the time travel paradoxes that make the first two so much fun. It’s mainly a western, and in this one Marty finally gets his life in order. Nothing special, but a fun diversion and a fair ending to the series. Two and a half.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002)

Now if ever there was a screwed up kid, it’s Anakin Skywalker. This punk gives in to hate, seeks revenge, loses control of his feelings, helps brutal Sith lords, defies his Jedi master, shows off and acts arrogant at every turn. He even slaughters a whole village of Tuskin Raiders. Is it any wonder he grew up to be the most evil man in that distant galaxy?

I loved Star Wars when I was a kid, but I wasn’t as disappointed with these new installments as everyone else I know. For one thing, I didn’t expect much and for another I probably would have skipped the original trilogy if I was the age I am now back in 1977. Unless I had kids, of course. So no, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones isn’t great, but it’s fun and it works if you’re not looking for more than that. Three stars.

The United States of Leland (Matthew Ryan Hoge, 2003)

The United States of Leland is about a teacher named Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle) who works in a correctional facility. There are plenty of screwed up kids in a place like that and one of them, Leland Fitzgerald (played by Ryan Gosling), is there for murdering a retarded boy. Pearl is an aspiring writer in search of a novel and as he gets to know Leland he thinks he may have it. Following the conversations between Pearl and Leland, the film focuses on the effects of the killing on both the family of the killer and that of his victim.

Sometimes it’s hard to enjoy a movie that mirrors one’s own circumstances (I’m a teacher/writer working in a correctional facility) because it’s so easy to get lost in the that’s-not-really-how-it-is details. This movie gets it right, and with excellent performances by Gosling and Cheadle, as well as Kevin Spacey who plays Leland’s out-of touch novelist father, it’s definitely worth seeing. Four stars.

Jarhead (Sam Mendes, 2005)

Dark, sarcastic military movies almost always go over well with me, and Jarhead is no exception. It follows the basic trajectory of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket from basic training to meaningless war, but where that film lacks a real third act and is overly bitter, Jarhead feels like a complete movie that actually engenders sympathy for its characters as it follows them through 1991’s Operation Desert Shield and into Desert Storm. At times the film is downright funny and other times it’s scary and often sad.

The cinematography in Jarhead is stunning. The empty deserts of Saudi Arabia become a spooky wilderness in which everything including hope seems only a mirage. The most amazing scenes, though, come after the oil fields are set afire providing hellish lighting for the battlefield scenes in which no battles occur. Jarhead is a sort of Apocalypse Now for a new generation and includes several references to that film, most amusingly when a Marine hears The Doors and complains, “that’s Vietnam music, man” and then wonders why they can’t have their own.

At one point, Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), the film’s narrator states “all wars are different, all wars are the same,” and so it is with war movies. This one is particularly good though and a powerful reminder of what happens when we send our kids, screwed up and otherwise, off to war. It’s based on Swoford’s memoir of the same name, which I suspect is probably also worth checking out. Four and a half stars.