Critique of Under the Same Moon, Dark Matter [Movies]

This is an essay I finished writing on 2014-10-13 for EDF 6155: Lifespan Human Development & Learning, a graduate class at University of Central Florida.

Richard Thripp
EDF 6155 Module 4, “Critiquing the Media”
13 October 2014

Name: Richard Thripp
Grade Contract: A

Media # 1

  1. Media type: DVD
  2. Name of book/dvd/etc: Under the Same Moon (2008)
  3. Stage of Development: Middle Childhood
  4. Issue(s): Separation from parents, death of grandmother, immigration
  5. Summary:

Under the Same Moon is a film about a nine year old boy named Carlitos and his journey from a small Mexican village to Los Angeles, to find his mother Rosario who has been illegally living there for four years, performing janitorial work while sending money home to Carlitos’ grandmother, whom he lives with. The title of the film comes from a statement his mother often makes on the phone to provide assurance that they are not as far apart as they think. When his grandmother dies, he decided to use his $1200 in savings to sneak across the border and locate her based on the return address from one of her letters. He runs into many challenges, such as the car of the couple smuggling him across the border being confiscated and resulting in him losing the remainder of his money and having to hitchhike to Los Angeles. He meets his father in Tuscon, who says he will pay his bus fare, but then mysteriously disappears like he did when Carlitos was a toddler. Carlitos’ self-reliance results in him making friendships and avoiding threats on his journey to his mother. Meanwhile, she is debating returning to Mexico to find her son, and considers marrying a suitor to get her green card, but backs out at the last minute. In the end, an initially unwilling friend made on the road (Enrique) ends up sacrificing himself to the police so Carlitos can get away. Given that the return address on Rosario’s letter is merely a post office box, Carlitos uses his memory of her detailed description of the surroundings at the phone booth she calls him from at 10 AM each Sunday morning to find her in downtown Los Angeles while she is making the phone call.

  1. Critique:

Carlitos is highly industrious—he is confident he can find his mother and does not stop taking actions to get there. He is not pessimistic and does not succumb to feelings of inferiority, the flip side of Erikson’s dichotomy for middle childhood (Berk, 2010, p. 330). However, the psychological issues resulting from Carlitos’ separation from his parents and him witnessing the death of his grandmother are not adequately recognized. Furthermore, the accurateness of the portrayal is limited: Under the Same Moon presents a highly sympathetic viewpoint to illegal immigration and underestimates the difficulty a nine-year-old illegal would have in making such a journey—for instance, he even secures employment for himself and Enrique at a small restaurant while traveling, which is unusual and a violation of labor laws in contemporary America (Bergman, Dreyfuss, Selim, Villalobos, & Riggen, 2008).

Cabaj, McDonald, and Tough (2014) have found that positive motherly interactions in a child’s first five years are correlated with better behavioral outcomes and resilience in middle childhood. Given that Rosario did not leave Carlitos until he was five, this may be an item of evidence in support of his resilience. Milrod et al. (2014) have found that separation anxiety in childhood has long-term negative consequences in adulthood, while healthy attachments have robust, positive outcomes. Since Carlitos had a good relationship with this mother even by long-distance phone communication, had his grandmother to rely on for emotional support, and had an abandoning but non-abusive father, he seems poised for good mental health through this stage of life and the future. Thus, there is at least some research in support of cheery optimism coexisting with Carlitos unfortunate circumstances.

Based on the logic, problem-solving, and language abilities the character of nine-year-old Carlitos demonstrates in this film, he may be a gifted child. Burke (2009) finds that gifted children need emotional support to cope with grief just as much as other children. She also proposes that grief does not just come from death, but from a gamut of issues, many of which Carlitos faced. Though there was a lack of realism and accurateness in his portrayal—it would have made more sense if he was several years older—it is somewhat plausible that he could have delayed grieving and deferred his needs for emotional support in anticipation of being reunited with his mother, who would fulfill those needs. This anticipation may also have helped him cope with his father disappearing after promising to buy him a bus ticket from Tuscon to Los Angeles. If the anticipated reunion gave him the psychological resilience to persist through numerous challenges on his week-long journey, then coupled with his giftedness, credence is arguably lent to the notion that a boy his age could act so far beyond his years.

  1. References:

Berk, L. E. (2010). Development through the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Bergman, R., Dreyfuss, N., Selim, H., Villalobos, L. (Producers), & Riggen, P. (Director). (2008). Under the same moon [Motion picture]. United States: Fox Searchlight.

Burke, A. (2009). Gifted and grieving: Why it is critical to offer differential support to gifted kids during times of loss. Gifted Child Today, 32(4), 30-37.

Cabaj, J. L., McDonald, S. W., & Tough, S. C. (2014). Early childhood risk and resilience factors for behavioural and emotional problems in middle childhood. BMC Pediatrics, 14(166). doi:10.1186/1471-2431-14-166

Milrod, B., Markowitz, J., Gerber, A., Cyranowski, J., Altemus, M., Shapiro, T., & … Glatt, C. (2014). Childhood separation anxiety and the pathogenesis and treatment of adult anxiety. American Journal of Psychiatry, 171(1), 34-43. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13060781

Media # 2

  1. Media type: DVD
  2. Name of book/dvd/etc: Dark Matter (2007)
  3. Stage of Development: Young Adulthood
  4. Issue(s): Isolation, academic politics, school shootings, Asian-American cultural issues
  5. Summary:

Dark Matter is a film loosely based on the 1991 murders of three professors and a fellow student by Gang Lu, Ph.D. (“Liu Xing” in the film), a brilliant astrophysics student from China and recent graduate of the University of Iowa. In the film, Liu Xing is portrayed sympathetically—his hubris and infamous temper are omitted (Marriott, 1991). Numerous deviations from the real story that make the film no more than a fictionalized account; however, the film arguably still has value for showing that unfair marginalization can be a factor leading to tragic consequences. In Dark Matter, Xing is accepted into department head Jake Reiser’s prestigious cosmology lab based on his excellent test scores and undergraduate education at the University of Beijing (Chiu, D’Amico, & Chen, 2007). He yearns to uncover the true origins of the universe through his investigations of dark matter—however, the evidence he produces directly contradicts Dr. Resier’s theory. His dedication to the truth results in Reiser rejecting his dissertation for using computations deemed imprecise, even though Reiser used the same methods in his own research. By this point, Xing has been writing phony letters to his parents in China reporting good news; he has been spurned by his crush, an American girl who works at a coffee shop; and he has seen a smooth-talking Asian classmate (Laurence Feng) flagrantly forge research results to support Reiser’s theory—resulting in his dissertation being accepted and awarded a distinguished prize that Xing wanted. Xing’s isolation, social awkwardness, and academic frustration—coupled with his idealization of guns as a tool for social justice—result in him gunning down Reiser, Feng, and two other professors, before turning the gun on himself.

  1. Critique:

According to Erikson, early adulthood (18-40 years) represents a psychological struggle between intimacy and isolation. In his model, intimacy is facilitated by a secure identity and culminates in faithful commitment to an intimate partner, while isolation is correlated with identity moratorium and results in loneliness and self-absorption (Berk, 2010, p. 468-69). The depiction of Xing is consistent with someone who has neither a secure identity nor intimate attachment. Xing’s identity, based on his interactions with his parents and Asian peers, is not collectivist, but rather connected to academic and professional success. His internalization of this paradigm is so entrenched that he is unable to appropriately cope with the institutionalized injustice promulgated by Reiser and Feng—having his contributions marginalized and incorrectly criticized leads to a melancholic rage belied by his timid countenance. This rage is revealed to the viewer through Xing’s thoughts, which are depicted through glimpses of shootings in Western films and Xing being buried in falling snow (Chiu, D’Amico, & Chen, 2007).

While Xing may be a believable character, there is a broad dramatization of the “true story” the film is based on, demonstrated by its significant deviations from actual events. In fact, the dissertation of Xing’s real life counterpart, Gang Lu, was accepted—not fraudulently rejected on a technicality as in Dark Matter. In reality, Lu was enraged merely that his dissertation received too little enthusiasm, and additionally walked three blocks away to murder the vice president of academic affairs and maim a receptionist (Marriott, 1991). These departures from the true story may be evidence that the subject matter was handled with limited accuracy and egregious inappropriateness—consider the families of the victims, who might be outraged at the lionizing moralization of their loved ones’ murderer. Xing’s actions may represent the worst possible outcome of failure to negotiate the young adulthood stage—the next step up might be suicide without murder, which is far more common. Specifically, he was not a rampage shooter, but rather (as depicted in the film) someone who had experienced emotional abuse from Reiser and whose final reaction was to methodically murder the abuser and associated individuals—a decision typically not associated with psychopathy or psychoticism (Rocque, 2012).

In a survey study of counseling students, Gold and Rogers (1995) found a positive correlation between scores on the Hogan Empathy Scale and intimacy scores on Hamachek’s operationalization of Erikson’s intimacy/isolation model. If the inventories used are valid, this study is one piece of evidence supporting a connection between empathy and intimacy. Given that Xing witnessed the baptism of Feng’s infant son yet had no qualms about taking his life, he seems to have shown a lack of empathy for Feng’s wife and son. A lack of empathy is connected with a bias for isolation according to the study by Gold and Rogers. Various factors may have played into Xing’s isolation, including a clash between Chinese and American culture, but given that he was surrounded by Asian students who did not respond similarly, there was surely a personal component to Xing’s behavior, as well as a situational component regarding his failed romantic and academic interactions.

  1. References:

Berk, L. E. (2010). Development through the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Chiu, L. S., D’Amico, K. (Producers), & Chen, S. (Director). (2007). Dark matter [Motion picture]. United States: Screen Media.

Gold, J. M., & Rogers, J. D. (1995). Intimacy and isolation: A validation study of Erikson’s theory. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 35(1), 78-86. doi:10.1177/00221678950351008

Marriott, M. (1991, November 4). Iowa gunman was torn by academic challenge. The New York Times. Retrieved October 13, 2014, from

Rocque, M. (2012). Exploring school rampage shootings: Research, theory, and policy. Social Science Journal, 49(3), 304-313. doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2011.11.001

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