When Movies Don't Match the Ratings

Filed under: Movies

movie ratings

Despite the rating, you never know what you're going to get. Credit: Getty Images

When my friends complain about hearing a baby cry during an R-rated movie ("What were those parents thinking?!"), I waste no time chiming in. But I have a confession: My son saw his first R-rated movie when he was only 11. You might say I'm a bad mom, but before you judge my decision, consider the circumstances.

The movie in question was "The Informant!," a twisty tale of corporate espionage starring Matt Damon. I couldn't think of a good reason for the R rating, so I checked Common Sense Media (yes, I really use our reviews!). We rate "The Informant!" ON (age appropriate) for age 15 and "iffy" for age 14, mainly due to a liberal sprinkling of F-bombs and a graphic conversation on an airplane.

Now, if it were any other kid, or any other R movie, I probably wouldn't have made the choice to let him watch it. But I know my son: He isn't the type to imitate what he hears on screen, and he has the ability to follow a complex storyline. Personally, I'm not too bothered by language (my bugaboo is gratuitous violence). Plus, I knew I could (and indeed I did) heavily edit the iffy parts with the remote control.

Accepting Ratings Over Content

You hear a lot about MPAA ratings that are too low for their target age. "Coraline" and "Toy Story 3," for example, have both generated lots of heated comments for being scarier than their trailers (and ratings) portrayed them to be. But you rarely hear about movies whose ratings seem too high. The mismatched ratings can run both ways, and sometimes kids miss out when a great movie gets a rating it doesn't seem to deserve.

Take "The King's Speech," an inspirational movie about overcoming fear. It has an R rating that's mostly due to spicy language (much of which is all in one big outburst). Like "The Informant!", we've rated the movie ON for age 15 and older, with a "pause" at age 14 (see more about our ratings). A couple more examples: "Billy Elliot" (about a boy who loves ballet) and "Once" (about two star-crossed musicians). With the right conversations, a ready remote and amenable kids, these might be OK family fare.

Hindering a Parent's Decision

The MPAA's R rating will likely prevent most parents from even considering "The King's Speech" for younger teens, which is too bad, especially since it's challenging enough to find movies for the whole family. In the words of one teen who posted a review on our site, "this excellent, excellent film sadly won't be seen by most adolescents, which is the demographic that ... needs to see it most of all." Another commenter questioned why "The King's Speech" earned an R rating while "True Grit" -- a sometimes-brutal Western with depictions of public hangings -- got a PG-13.

Now, I'm certainly not advocating that parents pack up the whole family to see "Blue Valentine." But kids don't necessarily need to miss out on a movie that could be really enriching. If you're trying to make a decision about whether to see a movie, you can't rely solely on MPAA ratings (which are governed by the Motion Picture Industry) or trailers, which can be misleading.

A few easy rules can help you make the best choice for your family.

Rules to Help You Decide

  • Know before you go. Always check our Common Sense Media reviews for the low-down on hot-button issues. And read other parents' comments, which provide real-life context and individual perspective.
  • Know your kid. Our movie ratings are based on childhood development guidelines, but understanding your own kid's strengths and sensitivities will help you determine where there's some wiggle room.
  • Get buy-in from the other adults who matter. Whether it's your spouse, ex-boyfriend or babysitter, have a closed-door conversation with anyone else who has responsibility for your kid. If you're not on the same page, see something you agree on.
  • Talk with your kid before -- and after. Prepare your kid (and yourself) by discussing some of the things that may be in the iffy range before you go to the movie. Afterward, help your child understand anything that stood out, and provide your own thoughts and feelings about it. And remember, what's iffy for one family might be perfectly OK for another.
  • You can always leave (or turn off the TV). We make the best choices we can as parents using the information we have. But sometimes we misjudge. If you're not comfortable with what you're watching, take off. (If it's within the first 15 minutes of the movie, most theaters will give you your money back.) At home, just choose something else to watch.
Written by Caroline Knorr.

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Get more information for parents on media and technology by checking out Common Sense Media.


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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.