There was one Christmas Eve where my parents let me stay at my brother Daryl’s on-campus apartment instead of in my own bed at home. It was the first time I let Santa do his thing without me being in the house, I was 11, and nothing made me feel more grown up than sleeping on a crappy futon next to a Yoda doll and about a thousand empty Fritos bags. Was it a formative moment in my childhood? Hard to say. Maybe I simply remember it more vividly than others, or maybe I just miss my brother.
It’s an important memory from the past that opens up Ron Howard’s 1989 movie Parenthood. It’s also rare that we get the subconscious dream state of a main character offering up his reality and the reasons for it.
Little Gil is at a baseball game with his father, who pays an usher to look after him while he conducts some business. Their small talk grows surreal as the tiny kid explains that all of it is in his head, that it’s already happened before, and that he’s already a father with three kids of his own. When we snap to reality, we find Steve Martin (Gil, adult sized) in a daze as a stadium crowd shuffles out. Soon, we’ll be in the parking lot trying to corral three young children toward a mini-van, but the memory of his father’s neglect lingers. In typical movie fashion, it seeks to define Gil and his dad with the core moment of their relationship. Unlike most movies, those definitions are revealed to be false, or at least far more complicated.
Yet the movie isn’t even about them, not entirely. They barely even share screen time together. From a hazy memory to a chaotic reality, the movie fans out to give us the whole Buckman clan – a seemingly endless family with a laundry list of everyday problems.
With the TV version (featuring Bravermans instead of Buckmans) over now, it’s important not just to binge-cry through its 6 seasons again, but also to rediscover Parenthood in its original movie form. For one, it’s strangely overlooked in the conversation about Howard’s greatest films. For two, it holds up as a bittersweet exploration of the madness it must take to raise a child and to be one.
It would be easy to think of the TV Parenthood as its own entity, specifically because it shares only a handful of similarities with the movie before tacking its own course. There’s baseball, a problem child with a father struggling to handle the idea of his son needing professional therapy, and a core group of parents all dealing with separate but mirrored realities.
There’s Gil and Karen (Mary Steenburgen), with their nerve-stricken eldest, adorable little girl and a toddler who loves slamming his head into things; Helen (Dianne Wiest), the divorcee with a hormone-stricken teen daughter and son who never talks to her; Nathan (Rick Moranis) and Susan (Harley Jane Kozak), with a preschool-aged prodigy; and Larry (Tom Hulce), the prodigal son who’s recently learned he has a young child of his own.
If you’re keeping score, there’s also their parents – Marilyn (Eileen Ryan) and Frank (Jason Robards), as well as the threat of some of their grandchildren becoming parents. There’s a lot of parents here, and a lot of children.
That ensemble should be enough of a prod to get you to check it out, but if you’re still not convinced, Keanu Reeves plays Helen’s daughter’s drag racing boyfriend, and Joaquin Phoenix does some of the best work of his life in a scene where he calls a father he hasn’t seen in years.
The movie skates gracefully from the broad comedy of Gil wrestling with a piñata that refuses to break and Helen’s vibrator being discovered during a power outage, to the harrowing emotion of a child having a nervous breakdown in a pizza parlor and a daughter screaming at her mother before storming away from the house for good. Nothing crazy. Just life. Which is insane.
It’s that base that makes the interwoven vignettes work. Weird things happen all the time, new challenges come up, but nothing is truly life threatening no matter how cataclysmic everything feels in the moment. It’s a frustratingly funny look at how different people deal with different amounts of responsibility.
Juxtapositions begin to matter a great deal in that sense. Everyone judges themselves reflected in each other – an act that becomes especially difficult when the free-wheeling younger brother acts coolly in control of a life where gambling debts are probably going to get his legs broken. The ephemeral, deceptive lesson is that everyone else is having more fun than you are. Something to think about while cleaning puke off your Dockers.
The absurdity comes from the nature of families. When Helen finds naked photographs of her daughter and her boyfriend, she laughs and spits out some of the funniest lines of the film. How else can you respond? There’s only so much hair you can tear out. Everyone in the film is just slightly fucked up, but the parents create a safe haven for that. At least they do most of the time, despite no one building a safe haven for them. Cue all of us oscillating between choking up and cracking up.
The TV series had the benefit of spending more time with the clan, exploring the depth of those relationships and changing them week to week, which is why it’s easy to imagine that Parenthood could (and probably should) be remade every few years. Despite still being fantastic, the movie looks and feels its age, and every new generation and style of parents could deliver their own stories and hardships. We would do well to see Parenthoods from different socio-economic backgrounds – people who aren’t the Buckmans/Bravermans with their mostly middle class lifestyles and concerns.
As a married man with no children, the movie also plays as a kind of horror film for me (complete with its “It could happen to you,” tagline). Having children looks like non-stop torture with a handful of opiatic highs to keep you in the game. It also looks thrilling, manageable and unendingly rewarding. Both paradoxical realities are shown equally in the film, existing impossibly at the same time.
I can only relate to it as a child, recognizing that no matter how old I get or they get, my parents will always see me as their boy. I also don’t have the large, close-knit family that the Buckmans and Bravermans have, which both forces peripheral problems on top of their major concerns and creates a bigger support network when life becomes overwhelming. I live in Germany with my wife, my parents live in south Texas with my extended family spread from Austin to Indiana. We don’t get together for a weekly meal, which means we’re unfortunately separated from our daily trials and triumphs.
My brother was diagnosed with a fatal disease on my 6th birthday. It was the kind of medical record entry that always had an asterisk next to it, a question mark denoting that this was a best guess, the scientific version of a shrug. He died a few weeks after my 17th birthday, a full decade longer than any of the doctors gave him. Sometimes I wonder what our relationship would be like had he lived. Would he be married? Would he have children? Would he call me for advice if he and his wife had a fight? Would he send me videos of his kid hitting his or her first home run?
It’s not to say that my brother living would have dramatically altered the way that my family relates to one another (read: from 6,000 miles away), but that removing even a single member of the family also removes the potential that person has to make that family grow, and to bring colorful new insanity and joy into the fold.
It’s strange, then, that Parenthood consistently asks, “How are we not okay, and how will we be okay?” By focusing on the problems in front of them, we get happiness only in the nooks and crannies. Then, something amazing happens. Characters shift as we open our minds to who they are beyond our surface-level expectations, and then shift back again. People are wonderful and terrible and everything in between. Fundamentally good people do bad things, make rash decisions, respond to pressure the wrong way. They also become heroes by pretending to be a cowboy and digging through trash cans full of pizza. The worthless boyfriend can become the direly-needed big brother figure. The snide patriarch can show vulnerability and compassion. The mother of the perfect child can recognize how unhappy she is and fix it.
The lingering question with the end of the Parenthood TV show is about the state of the family drama on TV today. There are as many NCISes and CSIs as possible (but look out for more), yet creatives don’t seem as interested in telling stories like Parenthood without the candy coating of a police procedural or workplace narrative. That goes for movies as well, and it’s a cardinal reason I think Boyhood has done so well beyond the 12-year work-in-progress gimmick.
Family dramas of the past few years have usually had something fantastical about them. Last year we saw The Judge (with family drama stemming from a murder), Still Alice (with a devastating medical diagnosis at its heart), and Boyhood, which might be the divorced child of a movie like Parenthood.
No one is poisoned at dinner, no one becomes a superhero, and millions of dollars are never at stake. It’s just life. And life is a roller coaster. Parenthood had that, and a lot more, to teach us, and we could all do well with another family reunion.