Tuesday 19 February 2019

Dark Eyes Retrovision #10 - Parents (1989 Canada/USA: Dir Bob Balaban)

When Parents was released on home video back in the day, (July 1989 to be precise and cut by three minutes from the cinema release) I thought it really was something different. Critics tended to disagree, and generally gave it the thumbs down. Thirty years on and Vestron have re-released the movie, completely uncut, for a 21st century audience to re-consider.

1950s stylings were very 'in' during the 1980s. Parents is part Norman Rockwell, part Blue Velvet era David Lynch. It also recalls Paul Bartel's Eating Raoul (1982) and John Waters movies like Polyster (1981) and Hairspray (1988). Where this movie attempts something different - and why it probably felt different to me at the time of initial viewing - is that it pitches the narrative from the perspective of a young boy, playing on the inherent suspicion a child has of its parents as figures of authority but also independent adults in their own right.

So it's 1958, and we're somewhere in the suburbs of the mid USA. 10 year old Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky in his only screen credit - he would go on to be an accountant) lives with his parents, a distant pair who seem to have stepped out of a household management advert, and who force feed their son with an almost constant supply of cooked meat. Michael isn't keen - why, he's verging on vegetarian - and is increasingly suspicious of the origin of dinner, lunch and tea.

Dad Nick (Randy Quaid, looking constantly sweaty) is a scientist working at the local Toxico (geddit?) laboratory, developing a chemical product that will quickly eliminate forestry enabling more cattle rearing to take place. Mum - ok, mom Lily (May Beth Hurt), is a pinafore wearing domestic goddess, forever up to her elbows in mince or devilling kidneys at any hour of the day.

Michael's concerns spill out in his dreams - of drowning in blood - and into his schoolwork; when asked to draw his family he defaces the entire page of an exercise book with red jagged crayon lines. He is referred to the school psychologist (a brilliant turn from the late Sandy Dennis who sadly died only three years after Parents was completed), and there is a marvellous scene where Michael's mother, quizzed by the psychologist about her son's relationship with his parents, remains absolutely clueless.

The movie builds to a grand guignol climax as expected, and Parents has moments when mom and dad are exposed for the creatures they really are (recalling Brian Yuzna's 1989 movie Society). But, and it's a criticism that's been levelled at the film before, the film shows its hand too early - ie that Nick and Lily aren't the cookie cutter parents they make out to be - and then extends the 'eat your meat' gag pretty much through the whole film.

Parents is worth a watch for its overall style and for Quaid's - and to some extent Madorsky's - sinister performances. It's perhaps not as nasty as it should be, but it has the benefit of a sharp script; one of the best lines in the film comes when, in response to a question about where the food he's given comes from, Michael is told "Leftovers." "But what were they before they were leftovers?" he enquires.

Parents special features include an audio commentary with director Bob Balaban and producer Bonnie Palef, interviews with composer Jonathan Elias, screenwriter Christopher Hawthorne, Mary Beth Hurt, director of photography Robin Vidgeon and even decorative consultant Yolanda Cuomo.

Parents is released on Blu Ray as part of the Vestron Collector's Series on 25th February 2019.

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