DIRECTED BY: Bob Balaban
FEATURING: Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky
PLOT: Moving to a new town and going to a new school can be tough on a young boy, but Michael’s problems may be even worse—his parents might be cannibals.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Parents is a wonderful little black comedy directed by Bob Balaban, better known for his many appearances in off-beat comedies over the past few decades (including Moonrise Kingdom, Gosford Park, and as a recurring character on “Seinfeld”). With three-million bucks and an eccentric performance from Randy Quaid, Balaban put together a fun little romp of the macabre combining “nifty-’50s” schmaltz with nightmarish overtones. If really pressed, I’d say it could make the “Certified Weird” cut; but frankly, we’re running out of space.
COMMENTS: Some years bring us big movies—-movies a generation remembers as iconic. The year 1988 brought us classics like Die Hard, Coming to America, Rain Man, and Big. It also brought us Parents—a movie that, like “the Little Engine that Could”, eschews fame but provides a solid performance. Tucked away among dozens of big-name pictures that year, Parents succeeds at everything it sets out to: it is dark, it is funny, and it is a helluva sinister showcase for Randy Quaid. It fared poorly in theaters—not surprising considering the genre (horror comedy), competition (already mentioned), and stars (great actors, but not Hollywood gods). But who cares? Though not quite a qualifier for Certified Weird status, Parents is exactly the kind of movie for our readers.
A jaunty mamba plays through the credits: a pleasant montage of 1950’s hyper-Lynchian suburbia: helicopter shots of indentikit houses; a beautiful mint-green Oldsmobile filled with wholesome groceries and a nuclear family; a friendly crossing guard. But alas, young Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) lacks his parents’ enthusiasm about moving from Massachusetts. Michael sullenly mopes about the house in near silence, refusing to eat any of the left-overs brought from their old home. His mother Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) is a chirpy kind of perfect housewife, maintaining a spotless home while cooking elaborate, meaty meals. Michael’s father Nick is enthusiastic about his job (developing aerosol defoliants) and is keen to fit in with the new neighbors. What’s eating at the boy, then?
The greatest charm of Parents is its narrative ambiguity. Balaban crafts a tone that matches its hyper-kitschy nostalgia with equal parts menace. Colors pop off the screen while a lack of immediate context and chilling musical cues do a lot of heavy lifting. Nick Laemle is prone to telling didactic “stories” to his son, typically to a discordant, darkened score. And the big question—are the parents cannibals?—is difficult to answer. Early on we see Michael witness his parents being romantic, with mom’s lipstick smeared on her and her husband. What develops is a conflation of his parents’ physicality with his paranoia about the nightly meat dishes. Since everything is through the eyes of the morosely imaginative Michael, the fiery ending could be construed as tragicomic, or just straight up tragic.
Unexpectedly, Parents excels in its characterization. Lily’s emotional distress about her boy is palpable; Nick’s inability to bond with his son is moving. And, time and again, the big question of the film pops up. Others may disagree, but I’m of the feeling that all the “trouble” in the story is in the mind of young Michael. Though he’s the central observer, scenes exist in the film that he cannot possibly have witnessed. But I digress. At 81 minutes, Parents is commendably brief. Balaban created a masterpiece in miniature in 1988, one that has aged substantially better than many of its more famous contemporaries.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a deeply ambiguous fusion of the family’s reality and Michael’s psychotic fantasy, where cracks in the surface sheen of 1950s home life expose something deeply poisonous and combustible beneath. Initially signalled by their monochrome presentation, soon Michael’s deranged visions start coming in full colour (and daylight), with only the canted angles and deliriously spinning mobility of Ernest Day and Robin Vidgeon’s camerawork – and the odd animated salami – to mark how off-kilter a view of bourgeois Americana this is.”–Anton Bitel, FilmLand Empire