F stands for family …

Pub date December 26, 2006
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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It is not — finally — a good moment to be a social conservative, as the Republicans have finally failed enough on so many fronts that their failure is being acknowledged. Evidence increasingly suggests large segments of the population don’t really care that much about the terrifying threat of gay marriage, don’t want to turn the clock way back on abortion rights, and prefer keeping church and state as they’re supposed to be: separate. Whatever happened to "family values"?

Maybe folks outside such crazy-liberal enclaves as our own have at last realized that the old mom–dad–2.5 children under one roof equation is an outdated ideal simply because so few people are living it anymore. (Statistics recently confirmed that two-parent households are now indeed in the minority nationally.)

If the movies generally reflect how the public wants to see itself, then 2006 suggested to a large extent that few viewers see the point of happy traditional-family portraiture, even as fantasy material. It used to be that conflict often arose when external circumstances yanked characters from their snug, supposedly normal domestic setup. Now things are usually unstable from the get-go: parents (if both are present) at each other’s throats, kids in alienated crisis, any contented people likely to be delusional (and probably well medicated).

Thus it shouldn’t have been such a surprise, maybe, that the year’s big sleeper was Little Miss Sunshine — a family road trip movie in which everybody who’s old enough to have an opinion loathes everyone else, mostly for good reason. Saddling each relationship with maximum dysfunction, winking at attempted suicide and the appearance of pederasty, the smugly clever script allowed audiences to feel superior to the hapless Hoover clan even as they bought into caring about them. (I didn’t dislike the movie, but it seemed more cynically manipulative than was acknowledged.) Maybe medium-black comedy is the new warm-and-fuzzy comedy for jaded urbanites. If so, it was a surprise that the film adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’s memoir Running with Scissors didn’t do better, since it offered more spectacular bad parenting, growing pains appallingly handled, mockery of basic room and board issues, terrible sexual initiations — and was based on a purportedly true story.

Less-farcical treatment of multihousehold toxicity drives the excellent Little Children, which not only sports the year’s strongest treatment of a pederast (apart from the documentary Deliver Us from Evil) but sees nearly every parent-child and spousal relationship in it unravel in a humid miasma of discontent. Ditto the little-seen but admirable 12 and Holding, whose juvenile protagonists act out in all the wrong ways after one of their friends is accidentally killed. Still, they’re in better mental health than the adults supposedly minding them. Then there are those House of Windsor inbreds who stick together through The Queen. Not that they have any alternatives: in contrast to normal folk, they seem as odd, unnerving, and extinction-bound as a herd of dodoes.

Just about the only nuclear family units onscreen in 2006 were in full-on peril: a mutant clan laying siege to the suburban one (whose members only stop arguing once they start getting killed) in The Hills Have Eyes; Gael García Bernal as a malicious usurper avenging himself on deadbeat dad William Hurt’s new, improved family in The King; Judi Dench acting as a flying wedge to drive apart school colleague Cate Blanchett’s home in Notes on a Scandal; Babel seeing danger everywhere for reckless children and the grown-ups who fail to protect them. Even without kids to worry about, the couples in antiromantic comedy The Break-Up, current upscale drama The Painted Veil, and French marital fry-up Gabrielle can hardly get away from each other fast enough.

What little sentimentality there was to be found in these areas came in suspect packages. Aaron Eckhart’s divorced tobacco industry public relations whiz in Thank You for Smoking may be a slimebag and a tool (and know it), but hey, he still wants his kid to look up to him. It’s the one plot point this movie doesn’t treat with total sarcasm — which only makes the ersatz heartwarmingness queasier. Fairly straight-up family values could be found in movies as diverse as World Trade Center, Apocalypto, The Fountain, and Rocky Balboa — but the one thing uniting those titles is that in important ways they’re all psychologically bogus.

Things look a lot better in the realm of alternative family setups, which this year encompassed such genuinely adventuresome movies as Quinceañera and Shortbus. In less politically correct realms, substitute dads were where you found them — in the mob boss (The Departed), crackhead teacher (Half Nelson), or suicidal gay uncle (Little Miss Sunshine) — but despite their flaws, they were still better than the real, biological item. On the other hand, sometimes the replacement parent is bad enough to make a child’s mind disappear into CGI fantasyland (see Pan’s Labyrinth). As far as the ’60s and ’70s went, institutionalized alternative families don’t look so hot in retrospect: check out the documentaries Commune and Finding Sean. Not to mention the one about a little place called Jonestown.

Children are the future, natch, and no movie made that future look scarier than Jesus Camp — whose little Christian soldiers are being homeschooled into a rigidity of science denial, social intolerance, and street-hassling recruitment. It was also the film, fictive or documentary, that saw narrow-gauge family values in their most aggressive practice. When and if these kids start questioning their parents’ judgment, we may see nuclear family meltdowns of hitherto unknown toxicity. Or worse, if they don’t: god help the rest of us when these know-nothings with a programmed agenda reach voting age. *


(1) Quinceañera (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, US)

(2) Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, US)

(3) Little Children (Todd Field, US)

(4) Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, US)

(5) The Queen (Stephen Frears, UK/France/Italy)

(6) Ondskan (Evil) (Mikael Hafström, Sweden)

(7) El Cielo Dividido (Broken Sky) (Julián Hernández, Mexico)

(8) United 93 (Paul Greengrass, US/UK/France)

(9) The Puffy Chair (Jay Duplass, US)

(10) Evil Aliens (Jake West, UK)