PARENTS **** USA / Canada 1989 Dir: Bob Balaban. 82 mins
The child abuse / adult alcoholism metaphors at the core of Christopher Hawthorne’s witty, disturbing script for PARENTS are richly evident, though many viewers will interpret it differently according to their own individual experiences growing up and personal paranoia about parental secrets. Red blooded American Dad Randy Quaid is a company man for “Toxico” with shirt, tie, yellow cardigan, horn rimmed spectacles and a hollow smile. He moves sitcom housewife Mary Beth Hurt and their sullen, withdrawn son Michael (Bryan Madorsky) to a picture-perfect vision of 1958 suburbia.
The boy’s alienation from his own family is captured via a striking early split diopter shot, while the jarring combination of Jonathan Elias’ portentous score and Angelo Badalamenti’s orchestral interludes (“Meatloaf Mambo”!) enhance the unease. At school, Michael shares with his new class friends a vivid description of boiling a cat and befriends an equally lonely little girl (London Juno), who claims to be from the moon and talks often about domestic punishments. Michael hides in closets and pantries, witnessing Mom and Dad in bloody / sexual cannibalistic trysts late at night, his worst fears realised by Dad’s dinner table avoidance of where the leftovers come from and casual verbal bullying (“Your son, the vegetarian!”). In a deceptively quiet moment of personal horror, Quaid – simmering with barely contained rage – makes explicit the resentment harboured for his own offspring : “You don’t look like me, you don’t act like me, you hate me…” Typically cast as broadly comic hicks, Quaid was never better, and director Balaban styles it like a dread-infused parody of an American family sitcom, complete with a suitably off-beam Sandy Dennis as a social worker. It’s often visually impressive (note the extended pull back tracking shot from the basement) and, if the climactic confrontation is more routine than the claustrophobic, nightmarish build-up, the final scene is a suitably cruel spin on typical 80’s horror codas, reinforcing the cycle of abuse as bleakly as the end of Cronenberg’s THE BROOD.
Review by Steven West