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Parents (Bob Balaban, 1988)

 

    Parents, the inspired 1988 debut feature from character actor turned director Bob Balaban, is better than most genre films that send up the stereotypical Ď50s lifestyle since the actors are playing actual, flawed people, and not robots unhappily living out an unsustainable fantasy. Equal parts horror movie and social critique, itís fairly predictable in its plotting and is marred by a few too many portentous shots, but there's richness in the character interactions that can't be discounted. Scenes detailing the troubled boyís relationship with his sole friend, or his motherís meeting with the school guidance counselor (a hilarious Sandy Dennis), for example, are offbeat and unpredictable without feeling like a thematic device. The approach, which reminds us of the individuality that obviously must have existed in even the most outwardly homogenous communities, suggests genuine turmoil behind the suburban facades to a greater extent than a movie like Pleasantville or Matinee can manage.

 

    The plot of Parents uses cannibalism as a high-concept metaphor designed to skewer the nuclear familyís consumerist impulses. Ten-year-old Michael (doe-eyed Bryan Madorsky) is plagued by nightmares and the sneaking suspicion that heís not like the other kids at his new school. Before long, he slowly comes to realize that his Mom (Mary Beth Hurt) and Dad (Randy Quaid) have been serving him human flesh for dinner. As it proceeds, the situation changes into an inescapable nightmare in which conformity requires truly disgusting levels of self-deception and revulsion. When Michaelís father complains because his son isnít just like him, the undertone seems to be that Michael is, like the cadavers the family feasts on, a consumer product in his fatherís eyes. By revealing that vegetarian Michaelís dad works as an inventor who develops an Agent Orange-type defoliant, though, the movie seems aware of the counterculture revolution thatís about to begin. Given the presence of so many weighty themes and potentially damning characterizations, itís all the more unfortunate that the final act of Parents doesnít live up to the precedent that the beginning of the movie set. Essentially, the movie downgrades its ambitions, settling on slasher movie clichťs and cheap thrills. Worse yet, Balaban doesnít seem capable of making the film work on the terms of a slasher movie. Thereís a nosedive in technical quality in the filmís slow-motion ridden final stretch, resulting in action thatís not nearly as exciting as it could be. That being said, thereís no denying that Parents is a much better than average attempt to infuse purpose into a genre not exactly known for it.

 

68 

07-16-04 

Jeremy Heilman