No matter when or where you were born, being a kid is hard - every day is a week, good or bad, and every problem is insurmountable no matter the climb. A normal child’s experience is heightened at the very least, and if a real issue does emerge it’s usually the parents who can steer the youth to calmer waters. But what if the grown-ups are the problem? This is the pickle that our wee protagonist finds himself with in Parents (1989), in which the prospect that Mom and Dad may be cannibals becomes chillingly real.
Produced and distributed by Vestron Pictures in late January, Parents brought in a miserable $900,000 against a $3 million budget. Reviews were less punishing, but at best it received lukewarm notices from critics. I believe it to be a little more cooked, and I promise that will probably be the last food pun I lay on the table. (Probably.)
For those unfamiliar, a story. Meet the Laemle’s: Michael (Bryan Madorsky), matriarch Lily (Mary Beth Hurt - Lady in the Water), and pappy Nick (Randy Quaid - former actor and current tinfoil-hatted man of the world), on their way to a new abode in 1950’s suburbia. Nick has taken on a job as a chemist at Toxico, Lily resumes her duties as housewife extraordinaire, and Michael once again must adjust to a new school with (hopefully) new friends. (They seem to move around a lot...)
Michael does meet someone however, the confident yet gawky Sheila (London Juno - Prom Night III: The Last Kiss); not only does she appreciate Michael’s awkward and quiet exchanges, she projects a sense of imagination that he is too afraid to express, lest he is admonished by the strict Nick. And that’s something he doesn’t look forward to, as he’s already wary of ma and pa due to their eating habits, of which they always try to foist upon him: plenty of meat, mostly barbequed, and as Michael never sees them buying any meat, he’s to believe mom when she says they’re “leftovers” from the move. But they must have a bottomless freezer; before long Michael goes snooping where he shouldn’t, and he soon finds out that his folks’ diet is the least of his concerns...
Parents is an odd duck of a film (not a food reference, probably); not content to be just a satire of the whitewashed and formica-laden ‘50s, it wants to be a serious look at the fevers of adolescence. At least it plays that way; scenes shift from light jabs at the sterile curtain hiding the insidious Americana to Michael’s haunting, suffocating dreams. Matters aren’t helped much by the fact that Michael is portrayed as a cipher who can’t be read; his dreams haunt him, but in reality he’s blank faced and immune to exterior forces for the most part. Problematic when we’re supposed to be seeing the film through his eyes.
Veteran actor and first time feature director Bob Balaban (My Boyfriend’s Back) shoots most of the film from Michael’s vantage point; every tight lipped smile from Nick and admonishing glance from Lily is amplified through his upward stare. And a stare it is, because that’s all Michael is allowed to show.
But before this comes off as an overstuffed (sorry) takedown of the film, there are still many items on the menu (okay, forget what I said earlier) to recommend it. First would be Balaban’s direction itself; not too flashy (there’s only one long tracking shot that draws attention to itself), he saves the visual metaphors for Michael’s nightmares. Well, most of them; he’s a big fan of slow motion, and he really believes the eyes are the window of the soul. Expect as many close-ups as a Fulci.
As one would suspect, Balaban has a natural affinity with actors; Hurt is utterly charming as the button-down matriarch with something always in the oven and a secret behind the smile, and the always quirky Sandy Dennis (God Told Me To) delivers as the concerned school social worker, but Quaid (literally) kills as the ever smiling uber-dad Nick. He doesn’t smoke a pipe, but he loves his cocktails and he has a hell of a golf swing. Come back Randy, we miss you.
Writer Christopher Hawthorne (The Courtyard) does one thing really well with Parents that makes it memorable despite its fractious tone: the film understands kids. It gets their fears; Michael is always spying on his folks, hiding in closets and listening in on conversations beyond his reach. Now with most children, the fear is unfounded; what at first they don’t get is easily explained away by people with more knowledge and experience and they are put at ease. But sometimes children are wise beyond their years, and if they tell you that their parents are cannibals, you could do worse than believe them.
Parents is available on Blu-ray from Vestron/Lionsgate.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: INVADERS FROM MARS (1953)