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Five Movies About Parenting

Parenting can be tough.  No matter how well you think you’re prepared, or how well-adjusted your children are, you’ll always have doubts.  Am I doing the right thing?  Am I doing enough?  Am I doing too much?

Splice (2010) 

I was really looking forward to this movie, since the director was also responsible for the awesomely entertaining Cube.  Splice starts with two genetic scientists, Clive and Elsa, having just created a new life form for a biopharmaceutical company.  They decide to take their experiments further and, unbeknownst to their employer, create a new life form that incorporates human DNA.    As you can imagine, the tried and tired ethical themes of “Don’t Mess With Mother Nature” and “Don’t Play God” weigh heavily on the narrative.

For the first thirty to forty minutes of the movie, I was genuinely interested in where the story was going, and what choices the scientists were going to make as new “parents.”  Clive and Elsa are hipsters, driving their broken-down jalopy, eating Chinese food as they grind through improbably difficult scientific problems, then going home to the cool apartment with a giant manga poster above their platform bed.  So they were fun to watch, and the story moved along pretty quickly.

The movie lost me during the second act, though.  Things dragged, and the scientists lost all their depth and behaved mindlessly and almost like automatons.  Dren, their creation/child, who had garnered some of my sympathy early on, couldn’t pick up the slack.  Sure, there were some scenes that were a bit unpleasant and awkward, but they didn’t seem entirely out-of-place or unrealistic in the context of who the characters were and what they were going through.  I wasn’t turned off by those parts of the story, I simply stopped caring.  The final part of the movie really didn’t seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the story, but by that point it didn’t matter to me.

Maybe that’s what happened to Clive and Elsa, too.  Once the wonder of their newborn wore off, and the child moved into adolescence, their parenting instincts and abilities simply failed them.

The Kids Are All Right (2010) 

Raising kids can be tough, even under the best of circumstances. But it can be particularly difficult when you’re a lesbian couple whose children have sought out their sperm donor “father”, and have brought him into your previously stable family structure.

I know this film was a darling of the critics last year, and I definitely enjoyed it – a lot. I’m a fan of stories that show families facing difficult but believable challenges, and this was a good story.  The tone was honest, and the acting was exceptional.  (Actually, I think the quality of the acting overshadowed the story a bit.)

But there were times that my emotional connection to the story drifted away, even as I felt a great deal of empathy for the individual characters.  There were too many points throughout the film where I got lost in whom I was supposed to be identifying with or rooting for.  At times the kids seemed to be the focus, but other scenes played to the sperm donor.  Still other times we were intimately keyed into the two moms and their difficulties. Things were bouncing around too much, and while I realize this could have been a deliberate filmmaking choice, it had the effect of keeping me at a distance – not enough to make me dislike the movie, but enough to prevent me from loving it.

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) 

Chris Columbus has written and directed some very popular movies, and while Mrs. Doubtfire doesn’t rise to the level of Gremlins, The Goonies, or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it does show insight into the desperation that a loving parent feels when their children are removed from his or her life.  If The Sugarland Express shows us how much physical peril parents are willing to put themselves in just to be with their children, then Mrs. Doubtfire shows how much embarrassment and psychological debasement a parent will go through.  After a messy divorce, Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) is forced to disguise himself as a matronly nanny in order to spend time with his own children.

For as many crappy comedy roles as Robin Williams has had (his ability to master straight dramatic roles is well established), this movie gives him a chance to really show the depth that he can bring to a comedic character.  There are a few overplayed scenes that seem forced in for the sake of entertaining the younger audience members (dancing around with the broom and vacuum cleaner?  Ugh…), but for the most part his portrayal Daniel portraying Mrs. Doubtfire is spot on.  There’s a lot of heart and emotion behind Daniel’s actions.  Perhaps deceiving your children isn’t an ideal approach, but sometimes when a parent realizes they’ve messed up their child rearing duties, they’re forced to drastically change the way they’ve been doing things.  Sometimes a parent has to completely reinvent himself to be effective.

Carrie (1976)

The real horror in Carrie wasn’t the prom. Though that’s an entertaining part of the movie, to be sure.  De Palma shows off his mastery of the split-screen technique and the score fits the carnage nicely.  No, the true evil goes by the name of “Mother”.

Sometimes it’s not the bogeyman of our childhood nightmares that’s the scariest thing, it’s simply a person gone a bit too far past the edge — someone who once may have been described as an average or normal person, but who lost their connection to reality because of some event they experienced or destructive relationship they had.  Mother doesn’t know she’s a monster, and she isn’t looking to harm her child.  She’s simply looking to save and protect her daughter from the evils of the world.  Don’t most parents feel a similar responsibility? Religious zealotry is a common trait of the scariest human monsters, and it’s done particularly well here because Carrie’s mom is over-the-top, but doesn’t feel fake.  She might even garner a bit of pity for herself, even as we watch her drive her only child towards a tragic and bloody end.

I think a large part of the appeal of Carrie is the way De Palma played a bit of a trick on us, at least as far as Carrie’s powers are concerned.  We see a couple of early demonstrations of telekinesis at school, but then we don’t get much more until the story starts its climax. The middle of the movie plays much like an ABC Afterschool Special, but with a strong sense of foreboding… even if you aren’t familiar with Carrie’s story, you just know that things aren’t going to turn out well.

Carrie resonates with us because sometimes the feelings of confusion and sense of isolation that’s part of being a teenager, and the rage (justified or not) we sometimes feel towards our parents and our environment seem to have an energy of its own.  We feel like our frustrations simply must a physical form or expression, if just to release all the energy that has no other outlet.

If hell is other people, then as teenagers we sometimes feel that one of the innermost circles of that hell is our parents.  (And high school classmates are probably somewhere close…)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) 

I suspect that few people under the age of 60 (myself included) are going to have a full appreciation for the landscape of race relations in America in the late 1960’s when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released.  But that’s certainly no handicap to enjoying or appreciating the film.

The premise is simple, and the physical scope of the movies is small (it often feels seems like a film adaptation of a play).  A young white woman brings her new fiancé John (who happens to be African-American) home to meet her parents.  Though the parents are socially liberal and raised their daughter to champion the cause of social justice and equality, the fiance’s race is a sticking point for them. In fact, John is so perfect and unobjectionable in every other way, there’s no way for the parents to escape the fact that it’s his race that causes them to be reluctant to approve their daughter’s marriage.

There are myriad themes of parenting that are wonderfully explored here:  forgetting what it’s like to be young; facing a changing world; the hypocrisy of raising your child to believe in the right things, but then backing down or second-guessing when the child acts consistent with the beliefs the parents espoused; not trusting young (but adult) children to make the right decisions; and wanting to protect them from harm, even if it means denying them the very thing that would bring them the most joy.

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About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.