Review: Ansel Elgort shines brightest in ‘Men, Women & Children’

TORONTO – Do you remember saying hello to people on the sidewalk? Whispering in a friend”s ear? Or perhaps you recall the art of purposefully ignoring someone in the hallway when you were in school? Thanks to the advent of smartphones, those key human interactions are slowly becoming extinct. During one of the first few scenes in Jason Reitman”s “Men, Women & Children,” which premiered today at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, the camera slowly moves above a large High School corridor. Not only are the students walking heads down glued to their phones, but so are their teachers. It”s a stark reminder of how much has changed in our day-to-day world this century and a smart framing point for the audience. The question is whether Reitman has anything else to really say about it or if the screenplay's framework will let him.

Based on Chad Kultgen”s 2011 novel of the same name, “Children” is a modern day drama set in a Texas suburb where teenagers' lives are increasingly Internet-focused and their parents struggle with whether to embrace their kids' online freedom or to quell it. There are at least seven different interweaving storylines, including a married couple using online avenues to satisfy their sexual desires (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt); their seemingly normal teenage son (Travis Trope), whose sexual fantasies may have affected his exploration of physical intimacy; a girl (Elena Kampouris) whose parents are oblivious to her obvious anorexia; a mother and daughter who seem desperate for celebrity (Judy Greer and Olivia Crocicchia); another mother (Jennifer Garner) obsessed with monitoring her daughter Brandy”s (Kaitlyn Dever) online activities; and Tim (Ansel Elgort), a young man dealing with a mother who has abandoned him and the social repercussions of quitting the football team when you just happened to be their best player.

Certainly, that”s a lot of narrative to juggle, and for the most part, Reitman does a good job at it. The problems arise from the fact that too many of these storylines are not compelling enough and a few are intentionally left open-ended. Granted, endings are not a prerequisite in the art of cinema, but when you”ve had the audience invest in a character and his or her journey, there needs to be a bit more here than Reitman is able or willing to give. This is a tall order for any filmmaker trying to bring a film in at less than two hours (this one runs 116 minutes), but that isn”t what is most disappointing about “Children.”

When the world is being set up over the course of the first 20 minutes or so, it all seems quite intriguing. But as the picture continues, the narratives all starts to seem slightly familiar. Moreover, the insights on how the increasing virtual world has transformed how we communicate with each other are probably not as profound as they are to start. Numerous TV series, documentaries and films have all included numerous elements here that are instantly recognizable. For instance, it”s often humorous, but Emma Thompson”s narration is something we”ve heard before. And by 2014 there now seems to be a cinematic language for texting, posting images and messaging from small indie films to Hollywood blockbusters (in fact, Jon Favreau's “Chef” had very similar graphics earlier this year). It”s hard to stomach, but “Children” may not be as fresh in 2014 as Reitman hoped it would be.

The reason why “Children” can be captivating at times, though, is its impressive ensemble. Elgort is the real standout here. He was slightly overhyped in “The Fault In Our Stars,” but in “Children” he makes Tim a strikingly sympathetic and heartbreaking character. DeWitt is particularly impressive as a woman coming out of her repressed shell over the course of just a few short scenes. The movie also benefits from a stellar young cast and the more-than-cameo appearances by J.K. Simmons and Dennis Haysbert. 

Reitman has been exploring his cinematic style since fashioning his most creatively successful film, 2009's “Up in the Air.” He tried to make the audience fall for a dark and unsympathetic character in “Young Adult.” He followed that up with “Labor Day,” which featured a scenario that was just too hard for most moviegoers to believe. “Children” clearly wants to segue back closer to the tone of “Air.” The problem is there is just too much going on here for Reitman to pull that off and after an auspicious start, it all just, sadly, falls flat.

“Men, Women & Children” opens in limited release on Oct. 1.