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Family Movie Review: Love & Mercy (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13         Length: 120 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 14+. The biopic about Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson focuses on two different parts of his life, in the 1960s and 1980s; there is cursing, language, abuse by parents (including a severe beating that causes deafness, as well as emotional abuse) and guardians, some kissing and an implied sex scene, and both on- and off-screen drug use, including marijuana, prescription drugs, and LSD (and the latter two aren’t glamorized). Overall, the film is about his journey from misunderstood genius to someone saved by the love and care of his second wife, and for any teens with musical interest, it’s quite well done.

‘Love & Mercy’ divides the life of Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson into two distinct periods to examine his boundless musical talent and the trauma he suffered from two different father figures. The film is wonderful, haunting, and enthralling.

By Roxana Hadadi


Some music doesn’t translate across generations, and the original work of the Beach Boys might not; “Surfin’ USA” doesn’t really have staying power. But “Good Vibrations” or “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” – those songs have longevity, and “Love & Mercy” engagingly depicts the emotional devastation, mental hardship, and obsession for perfection that went into musician Brian Wilson’s creations.

The biopic is told in two different time periods with two different actors: Paul Dano (of “12 Years a Slave”) depicts the younger Wilson in the 1960s, beginning work on the groundbreaking album “Pet Sounds” to his bandmates’ chagrin; and John Cusack (of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) plays the older Wilson in the 1980s, totally manipulated by a charlatan therapist who essentially has him imprisoned.

The two actors don’t really look like each other, and only Dano really resembles Wilson, but that doesn’t matter. They both deliver strong performances that make you care about, empathize with, and pity Wilson, especially as you see the way his genius was disregarded time and time again by his band, his abusive father, and others who took advantage of him over the years. It’s only when the elder Wilson meets the beautiful, breezy car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter who would become his second wife (played by Elizabeth Banks, of “Pitch Perfect 2”) that things begin to change for the better – but even that’s an uphill battle, similar to so much of Wilson’s life.

The film jumps between the two decades, presenting Wilson’s struggles with two different father figures. The first is with his real father, after Wilson bows out of a Beach Boys tour in Japan because of a nervous breakdown and instead returns to the United States to start creating new, unusual music totally unlike anything the Beach Boys – or anyone – had done before. In the studio, Wilson comes alive, but the other Beach Boys are skeptical (“Even the happy songs are sad,” they complain of the work Wilson has done).

And Wilson’s father Murry (Bill Camp, of “12 Years a Slave”), who managed the group and beat Wilson so badly once that he’s deaf in one ear, totally rejects his son’s new direction: “Five years from now no one is going to remember you or the Beach Boys,” he sneers.
Decades later, Wilson is a shell of his (already damaged) former self, totally controlled by domineering therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, of “San Andreas”), who hires bodyguards to trail Wilson and keeps food from him as an abuse tactic. When Wilson, who Landy has incorrectly diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, meets Melinda while buying a car from her, he passes her a note that says “lonely scared frightened.” At first, she’s unnerved, but eventually, an attraction grows, and a ceaseless concern for Wilson’s safety. How to get rid of Landy and help Wilson in a way that no one else has?

Although teen viewers may not be familiar with Wilson or the Beach Boys, the film does a good job presenting their success and place in pop music alongside the Beatles, and it’s impossible not to be enthralled during the scenes where Wilson lets his creativity out. The problems that plague him could lead to discussions after the film about the pressure people put on themselves for success, the impact of parental disapproval on one’s dreams, and the care provided for the mentally ill in our country’s healthcare system. There are both practical and theoretical conversations to be had after “Love & Mercy,” and parents and young viewers could partake in either.

Ultimately, though, “Love & Mercy” wouldn’t work without its performances, and the trio of Dano, Cusack, and Banks do great work. This isn’t a typical biopic, but Brian Wilson wasn’t a typical man, and “Love & Mercy” makes his extraordinariness quite clear.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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