And You Thought Your “Parents” Had Problems

Posted: February 17, 2013 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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Okay, by now it’s pretty well old hat to point out that the bland, saccharine image of 1950s Americana is a crock of shit built upon a foundation of lies, discrimination, sexism, alcoholism, prescription drug abuse, and general psychic misery. Why, the supposedly “revolutionary” Mad Men proves it every week, right?

News flash — there was little flick called Revolutionary Road that beat Mad Men to the punch by a couple years. And several years before that, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven mined the same material and delivered an essentially identical message.

But ya know what? Even that was pretty late to the party, because way back in 1989 director Bob Balaban — best known these days for his acting, being he’s a member of Christopher Guest’s troupe of cinematic regulars — unleashed a little gem on on a largely uncomprehending American public called Parents, a movie that had the balls to call bullshit on the plastic facade of 1950s nostalgia back when the average Joe n’ Jane  still felt a warm glow when they looked back on that era. And not only did Parents do it before all those other pretenders to the throne, it did it better.

Let’s be honest — the “critique” of 1950s culture running through Mad Men is about as authentic as its actually-way-cooler-than-the-’50s-ever-looked set design and fashion.  It’s fucking Sex And The City, with men, set 50 years ago. It’s shit. Heavy-handed, ham-fisted, soap opera shit, ready-made for commercial tie-ins with the new spring line at, I dunno, Macy’s or something. Revolutionary Road and Far From Heaven were a little bit better, I guess, but still awfully preachy and obvious. The satire in Parents , on the other hand, runs much deeper, and cuts much more sharply, because the real target of Balaban and screenwriter Christopher Hawthorne’s ire isn’t just the 1950s as a time period per se but the foundational structure upon which all that Norman Rockwell nonsense is centered — the nuclear family itself.

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I’m pretty lucky, as far as these things go — I have a generally healthy n’ happy relationship with both of my parents, as well as my brother and his family. But shit — I’m not blind. The simple fact is that probably a good 90% (at least) of all families are a complete mess and that the very idea of the “family” itself was never too great to start with and probably ran its course a long time ago. I’m at a complete loss as to what should replace it as society’s most basic social unit, but shit — anything would be better than most of the families out there these days , and things weren’t any better in the supposed “good old days” either. Sorry if this offends anybody (well, not really), but the fact is that by and large families suck and always have.

Balaban doesn’t pull any punches in his thorough-going critique of the family structure here, as his film centers around a small, insular cast and takes place in a very limited series of locales (home, school, dad’s office, friend’s house — that’s it. Oh, and the absolutely spot-on authentic production design puts Mad Men‘s “retro-chic” look to shame) — he doesn’t need to “bring the horror home” because the horror is home.

What horror is it that I’m on about here, exactly? Well, young Michael Laemle (Brian Madorsky) is a typically disaffected, alienated-as-hell suburban kid trying to make his way through life at a new school in a new town. He’s got one friend, a fellow “newbie” girl (played by Juno Mills-Cockell), no siblings, no pets. and is haunted by vivid nightmares that telegraph an insistent message : namely, that his “good guy”  scientist dad  (he’s working on developing defoliants for, of course, future use in Viet Nam), Nick (Randy Quaid) and doting mother, Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) are not who — or even what — they appear to be. Nobody pays any of his concerns much mind, however — kids have active imaginations, after all — until busy-body school social worker,  Millie Dew (Sandy Dennis) begins to believe that the blood-red crayon scribblings he’s peppering his workbook assignments with might be indicative of some very dark goings-on within the Laemle home —

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Okay, yeah — Parents is a horror/comedy. It’s got its tongue planted firmly, and obviously, in its cheek all the way through. But Balaban understands that his film’s genre trappings, rather than confining him, actually give him more freedom to go after his targets. In the same way that movies like Bob Clark’s Deathdream mined the (admittedly rich) dramatic terrain of  physically and psychologically shattered vets returning home from Viet Nam much earlier and frankly more successfully than later, more celebrated fare like The Deer Hunter, Balaban knows that (very) black comedy and horror are the velvet gloves within which he can cleverly conceal his iron fists. On the surface he might be playing things for laughs, but when push comes to shove, there’s no doubt he absolutely means it when he shows us that growing up in the supposed ‘average American home” is a non-stop parade of subtle, soul-destroying terrors.

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Needless to say, material this rich requires a deft touch from all of its actors. One nudge in the wrong direction and the whole thing’s gonna look like a farce. Luckily, each and every one of the leads is up to the task, with Quaid alternating between Ward Cleaver-esque “how ya doin’, pal?” and deep, pathological menace with ease; Hurt playing house with obviously-forced grace and charm in one moment and partaking in animal necessity-level hedonistic indulgence the next; and Madorsky, as the eyes and ears of the audience, delivering one of the absolute best performances by any child actor in Hollywood history. Ever. Period.

Parents came and went from theaters pretty quickly upon its initial release and was met with decidedly mixed reactions from both audiences and critics alike. Frankly, it seems like most folks just didn’t know what the hell to make of it. People couldn’t tell if Balaban was having them on, calling bullshit on their fondest memories, or what. With the onslaught of milquetoast “exposes” on the ’50s that have followed, though, it’s absolutely ripe for rediscovery and Lionsgate has recently seen fit to accommodate those of us willing to do so by releasing it as part of the less-than-scintillatingly-titled “Horror Movie Collection” six-movie, two-disc DVD bargain set. It’s presented widescreen in 2.0 stereo sound, both of which are surprisingly solid, sans extras. The package generally retails for around eight bucks, and while none of the other films included with it are exactly spectacular — okay, apart from Blood Diner, an awesome ’80s updating of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ classic Blood Feast —trust me, the whole thing’s well worth a purchase for the sake of Parents alone.


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So yeah. The 1950s sucked. We all get that. Mad Men “proves” it while simultaneously cashing in on self-created nostalgia for the period. And yeah, Revolutionary Road and Far From Heaven came along earlier and were a bit more hard-edged in their criticism — up to a point. Only Parents, though, had the guts to really tell us why they sucked, though — because families suck, and any era which venerates them as insistently and incessantly as the ’50s did is building its house on quicksand. Your mom and dad may not be literal cannibals like the titular parents in this move — oops, did I gave away anything you hadn’t figured out already? I doubt it — but they’re cannibalizing your dreams, ambitions, hopes, and aspirations with just as much gusto as the Laemles set into a thick, juicy cut of leg or thigh.

If you ever felt like your home life was a nightmare from which there was no escape, Parents lets you know, with a wink and a nudge, that you’re in good company. Families are a mess, they damage most of us for life, and there’s probably no hope that they’re ever gonna get better, because they were never too great in the first place. Now let’s eat, shall we?

 

Comments
  1. The Vern says:

    I find it funny that the horror DVD set has Earth Girls are Easy in the set. This is one I need to rewatch . I remember my parents having a copy but it broke when I tried to watch it and I never got it replaced. Still your comparisons to Revolutionary Road does peak my interest

    • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

      It’s much more effectively realized than “Revolutionary Road,” “Mad Men,” or similar fare.

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