Dir. Bob Balaban
Starring Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Sandy Dennis
Parents just don't understand. You know it, I know it, Will Smith knows it. It's the classic victimization of both childhood and politics; being under the unquestionable power of forces which don't understand what you wants and don't get why you do what you do. But a lesser-explored angle to that timeless axiom is its inverse: You don't understand parents. That may well be the key to understanding PARENTS. I wouldn't claim that I entirely understand PARENTS, but it's a damn fascinating film.
PARENTS, directed by perennial Christopher Guest supporting player Bob Balaban (who also, it turns out, directed the enjoyably dorky zombie rom-com MY BOYFRIENDS'S BACK) is a decidedly odd film. It concerns young Michael Laemie, a disturbed, withdrawn little kid who just moved to a new town with his all-American 1950's parents (played to the hilt for both menace and parody by Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt). They're chipper and successful, but something seems a little off about them. Maybe it's their weird insistence on telling Michael vaguely menacing stories, maybe it's the surprisingly abundance of "choice cuts" on the grill, maybe it's their shifty evasions when Michael wonders what exactly all these "leftovers" were, originally. But they're doing fine; it's Michael who is not doing so well. He's plagued by bloody nightmares and hallucinations, and his pent-up horror is finding its way into disturbing violent drawing and assertions that his parents are dangerous.
The movie seems to be a weird kind of mix of 50's parody and surreal horror. There's not a lot of overt comedy, but the film plays up the 50's stereotypes pretty aggressively and sports a determinedly cheery cornball soundtrack which seems defiantly unaware of the dark intimations creeping in around the edges of the pristine 50s dreamhouse. But then again, there's not a lot of overt horror, either. The world is dripping with unspoken menace and lurking malice behind its bright suburban facade, but we never actually see anything unambiguously frightening happen. We see Michael's horrific dreams, we listen as Dad spins pointed parables, we draw connections when we see a dense blanket of prime cuts laying thick on the grill. But the film stubbornly refused to provide a smoking gun. Several times, it seems that Michael has stumbled upon grisly proof, only to have the film back away from endorsing his experience as concrete evidence.
Which slowly begs the question -- is Michael the only one who can see behind the mask of wholesome 50s nostalgia? Or is he actually the one who is disturbed, finding hideous hidden meaning in the absurdly banal? Is it more likely Mom and Dad are closeted cannibal killers, or that Michael is a troubled pre-teen who doesn't understand the world and is imposing his own warped sense of reality on things? The movie leans heavily in one direction, and then just as it seems to tip its hand it swings back and subtlety rescinds a lot of the certainly it just provided. The film is so resolutely from Michael's terrified perspective that the lines between reality and imagination blur to the point that no event can really be completely taken at face value. it's a nifty trick, and the film is confident enough to refuse to resolve itself or directly address the subjective nature of its perspective.
What does it all mean? I'm not sure I really know. It's focus on bland 50s archetypes juxtaposed with elements of horror (both real and imagined) seems to suggest it wants us to draw some kind of parallel, but I'm not certain exactly what. The fact that Dad works at a cheery chemical plant designing defoliants and (apparently) testing them on human subjects seems to parallel the film's central narrative of savagery lurking behind the veneer of vapid consumption, but doesn't Michael's warped perspective on life somewhat undermine that suggestion? Or is it Dad's detached, modernist workaday horror part of what is causing poor Michael to come unhinged? Are to to believe Michael is the only one who lacks the cognitive dissonance to compartmentalize chemical warfare and domestic bliss and hence is falling apart? Or is this actually a story of fear of the unknown turning a blissful reality into a nightmare? I'm sort of hedging towards the former, which I think makes more sense and explains more of the film's unique creative choices, but I like that there's plenty of room to argue other possibilities. There's also a strange undercurrent of animalistic sexuality running beneath everything, which may be the key to understanding the whole thing or may just be another layer of mystery. What's up with the aggressively sexual encounter between the parents that Michael observes (and is it even real?) and what does it have to do with the hellsprite little girl next door, who runs a savage burn worthy of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS on the Laemie house while (at the very least) aping the rhythms of adult sexuality?
I've seen this film compared to Lynch's early work (BLUE VELVET, in particular) which is a fitting connection to draw in the two film's shared mix of suburban normalcy and surreal horror. But the film I found myself thinking about while watching is Mark Peploe's 1991 film AFRAID OF THE DARK, a similarly vicious nightmare of childhood subjectivity (interesting that the two were made only two years apart -- what the fuck was going on in the late 80s that made people think kids were living in a separate world of depraved horror? Oh right, Kriss Kross.) PARENTS and AFRAID... traffic in the ambiguities of childhood perception, and offer a glimpse into the isolation and terror this can engender. Both films have other interesting things to say, but their most interesting trick is this unusually bleak insight into what exactly it can mean that parents just don't understand. It's an old horror trope that kids (and pets, I guess) exist closer to the spirit world and are open to seeing and believing things that adults cannot. But these two films are a troubling reminder that seeing is not the same as understanding, and without understanding the consequences can be severe.
Balaban went on to direct four other films, and none of them seems to be anything even remotely like this, so figuring out exactly what the fuck he was up to with this one seems like a hopeless cause. Even so, its an astoundingly well-constructed film bolstered with a surprising about of visual prowess (there's an interesting technique here which seems to transform the live-action into a illustration as Michael dreams about running through the halls of his house. It's surreal and effective and I don't know that I've ever seen it used anywhere else). Neither Balaban nor anyone else I'm aware of would ever return to this kind of material again, but that's OK -- PARENTS is a rare perfect original. It's exactly what it needs to be, and hasn't been diluted with sequels and knockoffs. Even if we may never completely understand, you don't have to emulate PARENTS to love them.