A woman's phone went off three times during my screening of Men, Women & Children. She even answered it once and held a hushed conversation. Then, halfway through the movie, she just got up and left.
Normally this would be pretty irritating, but it feels almost fitting during a movie so preoccupied with the ways technology is changing how we live. The film, written and directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up In The Air), follows a group of high school students and their parents, just about all of whom are using the internet and technology to escape their bland and troubled existence. It follows a ton of characters, like 10 or so, and we get to see loosely intertwined vignettes about how tech is altering each of their lives: there’s a woman looking for a lover on Ashley Madison (Rosemarie DeWitt); a man finding an escort over a porn site (Adam Sandler); a boy making new friends through Guild Wars (Ansel Elgort); and a girl pretending to be someone else on Tumblr (Kaitlyn Dever), to name maybe half of them.
In fact, the internet is everywhere in this film. There are references to #thinspiration, Porn Hub, and YouTube. We see people using all kinds of apps, from Letterpress to Tinder. One couple plays Words With Friends with one another in bed. Facebook is often discussed and up on screen. And everyone is staring at their phones pretty much nonstop — even when they're talking to each other.Everyone is constantly looking at their phone so basically it's just like the real world
That constant texting actually makes for some pretty interesting interactions. In one scene, three teenage girls are talking to each other about sex, while two of the girls surreptitiously text one another mocking thoughts about their friend, using everything from text message slang to emoji. Their messages pop up onscreen like thought bubbles above their phones, and you basically have to follow these two separate conversations at once. That's actually a bit difficult to do, and I don't know that anyone could manage it if we hadn't all been doing this every day for the past decade.
The film also treats websites like they are settings, often overlaying them between a character and their environment as they browse the web: you might see a woman sitting in profile in front of an iMac, and behind her is just a giant wall of Facebook (it's actually a lot like what's happening here). At other times, you’ll see app screens and text message bubbles floating around the world above people’s heads, letting us know what they’re actually up to. Both are simple but effective ways to let viewers join these characters in their digital worlds, and both do so while emphasizing just what a major presence the web has in their lives.
It's easy to write that all off as a try-hard attempt to shoehorn hip internet things into an otherwise relatively staid dramatic story, but the fact is that there's really nothing out of the ordinary going on here. And while the film does place a blatantly heavy emphasis on the internet, it generally does so in a way that either escalates the drama, falls out of the way, or seems relatively natural. By keeping its focus on the characters who are on the web, rather than the web itself, Men, Women & Children doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming a movie that’s simply about the internet.
And critically, Men, Women & Children doesn't try to make a singular comment on the value of the internet. (I know you'll find a lot of reviews saying otherwise, calling this film alarmist, but the truth is that for anyone who's growing up with the web or already familiar with this stuff, it's anything but.) The movie even has a "villain" of sorts who is anti-web — an absurdly overprotective mother (Jennifer Garner) who logs all of her daughter's activity and scrubs through her social media pages each week. She's from another era, and just about everyone thinks she's a total joke for doing it.
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