Legal child abuse

In 1995, before the violent and bloody Bryan Singer film, “The Usual Suspects” had won two Academy Awards, I sat in a theater in San Francisco waiting for the lights to go down when a family of five – comprised of what appeared to be grandparents, parents and a young girl about 5 years old – walked down the aisle and took seats several rows down and directly in front of me.

I didn’t yet know enough about the film to understand what profoundly bad judgment was seated before me, but not long after the feature unfolded and the blood began flowing, the girl began crying, her voice rising to a keening wail.

Instead of leaving the theater, someone put a coat over her head and the family stayed through the entire film, an exquisitely-crafted, R-rated, 106-minute mystery, punctuated by murder, mayhem and buckets of blood, profoundly inappropriate for any child.

Afterward I confronted the family. They responded with embarrassment, even shame, but one explained their behavior by saying, “We just didn’t know.”

The theater manager later explained he had no authority to stop them from bringing the child, but admitted perhaps someone should have tried to explain to the family it was a mistake.

Apparently no one is explaining to parents how violent and potentially terrifying the second Hobbit film is, because children in the 5-to-7-age range seem to be commonplace in area theaters as the “Desolation of Smaug” rolls from one artful but grisly battle scene to the next.

But none of that is perhaps as shocking as the sight of a boy, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, exiting a screening of “The Wolf of Wall Street” with a man presumably his father, following three hours of explicit sex, drugs and corruption.

How the film got only an “R” rating seems to have surprised even one of its producers, who told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t know how we got away with it.”

For many adults, “Wolf of Wall Street” is a virtuoso, Martin Scorsese thrill ride, with brilliant performances and a staccato script. But exposing a 10-year-old to the film borders on child abuse.

That’s what film producer Stephen Simon thought when he witnessed a mother bring a 5-year-old boy to a showing of “End of Watch,” an R-rated cop-action film. Simon was so disturbed he confronted the mother, who ignored him. So he called Child Protective Services and was told they were legally powerless. He then confronted the theater manager, who was sympathetic but said he, too, had no legal authority to act.

Simon, who has produced R-rated films himself, says he doesn’t believe in censorship. Good for him. But what, if anything, can we do about this?

Simon suggests, “If you see this kind of thing, and you don’t feel comfortable talking to the parent, talk to the theater manager. Maybe even tell him/her that you don’t want to sit in an R-rated film with little children. And maybe even ask for a refund. If enough of us do that, the theater chains will definitely pay attention.”

Simon also urges theaters to instruct their ticket sellers to warn parents about “R” rated movies before selling tickets for small children. And, he concludes, “I would love to see the ‘R’ rating mean that no one under 12 or 13 can be admitted to that movie, even with an adult.”

We agree. It may not be illegal to expose children to movie sex and violence, but it is clearly abusive.

– David Bolling