Parents under pressure in films
Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly fight over how it ought to be done in “Carnage.” George Clooney in “The Descendants,” Matt Damon in “We Bought a Zoo” and Sandra Bullock in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” are worried about doing it alone. Viola Davis does it for other people in “The Help.” Demián Bichir does it as an immigrant in “A Better Life.” Nick Nolte is trying to do it over sober in “Warrior.” And Tilda Swinton has blood-soaked proof that she has done it all terribly wrong in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”
Parenting — specifically parental guilt and anxiety — is the subtext of a surprisingly large number of the year-end and awards-season movies. If a boy without parents — Harry Potter — was 2011’s biggest box office draw, films about parents themselves, in states of conflict, befuddlement, loss and awakening, are dominating art houses and critics’ lists.
Parents have long intrigued filmmakers and also reflected their eras — in 1962, Alabama attorney Atticus Finch became synonomous with fatherly protection in tumultuous times in “To Kill a Mockingbird”; in 1979, “Kramer vs. Kramer” dramatized a nation’s spiking divorce rate; Diane Keaton carried the briefcase for working moms in 1987’s “Baby Boom”; and a therapized generation of dads got their moment in “Parenthood” in 1989.
Now come the hyper-self-critical, stressed-out parents. Reflecting and sometimes commenting on a culture of self-conscious child-rearing, many recent films show moms and dads who seem far removed from the assuredness of their cinematic forebears. Imagine if Atticus had read daddy blogs, or if the booze-addled, bickering couples in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” landed their best zingers about playground etiquette and arts education.
“Societally, parenting is shifting, and that’s being reflected in the movies,” said Dr. Alexandra Barzvi, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and host of the Sirius radio show “About Our Kids.” “In the past, people parented based on instincts and how they were raised, but now with technology and the ease of transmittable information, we know so much more about parenting. We do so much more thinking about parenting. You can’t turn on a morning show without an expert talking about college anxiety, how to keep your kids busier.... Everyone wants to know how everyone else is doing it.”
“It’s a scary time to be a parent,” said Reilly, a real-life father of two who plays an ineffectual dad in two new films — one oblivious to his son’s dangerous detachment in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and another arguing with his wife and another couple about how to resolve their sons’ playground fight in “Carnage.” “People are freaking out — What’s happening to my quality of life? I have no time to spend with my kids, I can’t take care of my kids, I don’t have healthcare for my kids.... ‘Kevin’ might be a horror story for parents, and ‘Carnage’ a horror story about parents.”
“Carnage,” Roman Polanski’s retelling of Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play “God of Carnage,” sends up the hyper-involved culture of well-to-do urban parents, as two couples devolve into children themselves while debating their sons’ spat.
“The kids come off as the noble ones in ‘Carnage,’ the ones who are the most clearheaded and honest,” Reilly said. “The parents come across pretty hypocritical and pretty cynical. These characters are trying to do something for the kids that the kids should probably be doing for themselves, which is resolve this conflict.... These people see the kids as extensions of themselves... It’s almost like keeping up with the Joneses. Instead of who’s got the nicer car, it’s who’s doing better for their kid.”
A mother’s point of view is historically rarer on film than a father’s, though moms are getting more screen time lately, thanks perhaps to the gender of the storytellers. “Carnage” was written by a woman, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” was directed by one, and “The Help” is based on a novel by a female writer. “The Descendants,” an adaptation of another female novelist’s work, forces its father to take over maternal responsibilities.
“Mothers are more often absent, and fathers are more often inadequate,” said Steven Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register and editor of the Christian movie website Decent Films. “When there is a mother she’s more often competent, involved, she understands her role better, she relates to the children better. But she’s more often dead or gone.... Movies generally reflect a male point of view.”
In “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” director Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of the 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver, Swinton plays Eva, the mother of Kevin, a boy who commits a Columbine-style school massacre. Told from Eva’s point of view, “Kevin” contrasts Eva’s reluctance about becoming a mother and her growing awareness of Kevin’s problems with her husband’s blind enthusiasm.
“What the film really captures is that the mother is constantly thinking about things,” said Stella Bruzzi, author of “Bringing Up Daddy: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Post-War Hollywood” and chair of the faculty of the arts at the University of Warwick in England. “The dad is very much portrayed as someone who is much more superficial and doesn’t want to analyze the family relationship, which is clearly going wrong. It’s very sympathetic to the female point of view, which is unusual.”
Fatherly confusion is played both for humor and pathos in Cameron Crowe’s adaptation of Benjamin Mee’s memoir “We Bought a Zoo.” Matt Damon is Benjamin, a recently widowed father of two who makes an impulse purchase to repair his grieving family: Instead of a puppy, he overcompensates and buys a whole zoo. Scarier than tending the lions and tigers, however, is reaching his own angry 14-year-old, Dylan (Colin Ford). In one scene, Benjamin discovers some of Dylan’s disturbingly violent drawings.
“I wanted to catch a little bit of authenticity and the experience I’ve had raising two boys,” said Crowe, who is divorced and has twin 11-year-old sons. “As kids start to reach their preteens, they’re living in a world that excludes you often. It creates a lot of turbulence. That scene becomes the moment in the movie when Matt and Colin have their one explosive argument. It made me think, ‘This is the hidden world of parents and kids.’”
Lonely, widowed or abandoned fathers like Benjamin Mee are a romantic film archetype, according to Bruzzi, who points to such examples as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Sound of Music” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”
“Widowed fathers are seen as heroes, really, much more than their female counterparts,” Bruzzi said. “They’re romanticized, but they’re also romantic figures. Atticus Finch isn’t just a good father, he’s seen as doubly good because he’s fathering on his own. He’s the pillar of his small Southern community.... Atticus doesn’t spend much time wondering about being a good dad. There’s a marked lack of reflection.”
Contrast that self-possession with George Clooney’s character, Matt King, in “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne’s adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ Hawaii-set novel of the same name. Matt, who refers to himself pejoratively as “the backup parent,” is forced to navigate his daughters’ school conflicts and antisocial behavior on his own after a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma.
Hemmings said she wrote the novel when her daughter was 1 year old, and she began to consider how another, more hands-off generation of parents would deal with the sometimes ludicrous pressures she faced as a young mother living in San Francisco. Clooney’s character, she said, is based on her grandfather, a surgeon.
“I wanted to really push this guy out of his element,” Hemmings said. “My grandfather would come home and have his martini hour and engage with his kids, but then he clocked out as a parent. You don’t do that anymore. I joined this mothers group, and it was just sort of this absurd culture to me. I was overwhelmed by parenting.... The focus on having the right things and what are they eating ... lactation consultants, crib consultants, I swear to God there are curtain consultants. Parenting has become this whole other culture.”
One of 2011’s surprise box office hits, “The Help,” deals with a largely unexplored area of parenting — the bonds that develop between caretakers and children, specifically between black maids in Jackson, Miss., in the 1950s and ‘60s and the white babies they helped raise, as well as the sacrifices those maids made as parents themselves. “What does it feel like to raise a white child when your own child’s at home being looked after by somebody else?” Skeeter (Emma Stone) asks Aibileen (Viola Davis), a black maid who has raised 17 white children, often, it seems, with more tenderness and patience than their own parents had to offer.
“Parenting is not just a parent and a child,” said Tate Taylor, who directed “The Help” and wrote the script based on his childhood friend Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel. “It’s people we love. Abileen becomes a kind of parent for Skeeter. She’s a kind of co-mother. I had a co-mother too, because my mother didn’t get to be there. As a single mom, she was worried about how do I feed and clothe my son and make a living and care for him?”
2012 will bring more nervous parents to the screen — in March’s “Friends With Kids,” Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig are parents with a deteriorating sex life; in May’s “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” a fictionalized take on the pregnancy advice book, Elizabeth Banks plays a Type-A breast-feeding enthusiast; in “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” due in August, Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton play a couple who can’t conceive but find a 10-year-old child on their doorstep; and in September, Disney is re-releasing in 3-D the highest-grossing overprotective dad movie of all time — 2003’s “Finding Nemo,” about a widowed clownfish whose son is captured by a scuba diver.
“When I think about the movies involving parents and child-parent relationships in the last few years, the dominant emotion that comes to my mind is guilt,” Greydanus said. “Parenthood is seen by and large as a losing game, as something that you can’t really do well, or at best you try to make up later for the mistakes of the past and maybe your children will forgive you when they get out of therapy.”
If there’s an upside to these struggling screen parents, it’s that they can serve as a needed dose of reality for would-be Atticus Finches and June Cleavers, Barzvi said.
“Parents don’t have enough permission to talk about how hard parenting is and how much they hate their children sometimes, or their children’s Diane Keaton behavior,” she said. “It’s important that parenting be depicted accurately and with humor. It’s very helpful for families to see blended families, all of these kinds of new combinations, single parent families. People wonder, are TV and movies brainless activity? No, they alleviate anxiety and guilt. Great, I’m glad to see I’m not the only imperfect parent!”
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