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Review: Parents (1989)

Parents (1989)

Directed by: Bob Balaban

Premise: A boy living in 1950s suburbia begins to suspect that his parents might be cannibals.

What Works: Movies about cannibalism are frequently about the nature of society itself. Pictures like Cannibal Holocaust, We’re Going to Eat You, and Ravenous use anthropophagy to highlight and critique the ways in which mankind comes up short on the promise of civilization. Parents works on the same lines. It is no coincidence that it takes place in suburbia in the 1950s. This period of time is often idealized as America at its greatest with prosperity and virtue as the norm. Parents includes a lot of visuals that invoke the Leave It to Beaver public image of 1950s suburbia and then proceeds to take it apart. The houses, schools, and costumes highlight the superficiality of consumerist values and this thin façade masks something dark and violent underneath it all. Parents is a movie of considerable skill and style. The picture is full of nightmarish imagery that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. As in those movies, the filmmakers of Parents manipulate the audience’s perception of what they are seeing and cast doubt about the reality of those images. The film frequently includes disturbing imagery and it is presented in a way that leaves doubt (at least for the bulk of the movie) over whether this is literal or a childhood delusion. By doing so, they unfix the meaning of those images and allow the viewer to consider the other subversive qualities of this story. Parents is partly about the tension between adults and their children and it gradually upends the stable image of the 1950s nuclear family and everything that is built around it. The film has a lot of clever edits that facilitate that ambiguity and Parents is very well shot with usual angles and compositions that emphasize the child’s point of view and raise doubts about the veracity of his perceptions. In this respect, Parents does something quite unique in a movie about childhood. Quite often childhood is presented in movies as a magical time full of wonder and optimism. While that may be partly true, childhood can also be a very scary time; the world is run by adults who dominate all aspects of a child’s life and being small makes the world much more threatening. Parents captures that intimidating aspect of childhood and it is able to create empathy with the boy while also creating an impression of menace and violence without explicitly showing it on screen. The mystery of Parents, which ultimately suggests not only murder and cannibalism but impugns the integrity of reality itself, is skillfully executed and that makes this a horror picture that goes well beyond viewer expectations. 

What Doesn’t: The acting performances of Parents are generally very good except for the action beats in which the actors fail to convey the fear and energy of the scene. The quality of the soundtrack in Parents is varied. At times the dialog sounds muddled, especially in the outdoor scenes. This is partly due to the quiet performance of child actor Bryan Madorsky, who often delivers his lines in a low mumble. The premise of Parents might suggest that the film is a silly or campy movie but it isn’t. Viewers who come to Parents expecting the style of The ‘Burbs and Young Frankenstein may be disappointed to find that the picture is quite somber and cerebral. That in itself is not a fault and the filmmakers of Parents accomplish some extraordinary things in this movie. But the dark tone gets pretty heavy after a while and the movie could use a little more levity.

DVD extras: The single disc version of Parents is now out of print but an edition that is packaged as a double feature with the 1990 film Fear is available.

Bottom Line: Parents is very creepy but it is also a thoughtful movie. The filmmakers created a picture that is very re-watchable because there is so much in it that merits deeper exploration. It isn’t a wall to wall horror show but it is very disconcerting nevertheless.

Episode: #461 (October 20, 2013)