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.
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.
So how can a movie that focuses on people constantly staring at screens come to deliver a neutral or even positive portrayal of the internet and technology at large? For the same reason that getting an escort two decades ago didn't paint a bad picture of phonebooks. These events all would have happened in one way or another, it's just that in a modern film, much of it is bound to happen over the web. Technology facilitates some trouble here, but it's always the fault of the human who clicked the button — not the website that got their attention. This movie is interested in showing the different ways we interact now, not in passing many judgements on them.
For as much as this film does just kind of cram in as much technology as possible (e.g., it lists porn site after porn site and even makes a point of showing them to us), Men, Women & Children still serves as one of the most successful depictions of how technology and the internet have invaded our lives and changed how we interact. For so many films, technology is avoided as much as possible because it makes everyone too connected — think of the thriller where someone shouts "Damn, no phone service" — but here it's just daily life. Nowadays, you don't find out about a relationship because you see a couple holding hands, you just see their photos up on Facebook.
That's not to say that Men, Women & Children gets everything right as a film. It has an unnecessary and inconsistent narration and for some deeply strange reason occasionally cuts out to shots of NASA's Voyager floating through space. It also focuses on 10 characters (all white) and isn't able to give due time to any of them. What we get are vignettes that are mostly fine but never deep enough to round out any of these characters' problems. And boy, are there problems here: there's adultery, an eating disorder, digital overstimulation, porn addiction, erectile dysfunction, child porn, virginity, divorce, abandonment, teen pregnancy, desperate fame seeking, and for a lot of people, just general malaise. This film tries to be comprehensive when it comes to high school life, but that means it can only ever shed a little bit of light on its many subjects, rather than showing something truly meaningful about any one of them.
Still, something about the film's unwieldy breadth and clumsy attempts to sell itself as something far larger and more meaningful may just make Men, Women & Children really connect with certain teens. Not every one, that's for sure, but the ones who find themselves typing up (and then deleting, rewriting) late-night messages over Facebook or carefully curating a private Tumblr about an interest that they haven't shared with anyone else. It's easy to see those people finding something in here. This film may not be perfect, but it does know what it’s like to make a connection with someone right now.
Men, Women & Children is now playing in select theaters. It opens wide on October 17th.