As I’ve reflected on a few of my favorite films of 2013 so far–The Place Beyond the Pines, The Spectacular Now and Short Term 12–one thing that I’ve thought about is the way that each of these films is in some way about the damage inflicted from one generation upon another. They are films about kids and their parents (mostly their dads) who messed them up.
In Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper play two men from very different backgrounds who make choices that have a decided impact on their offspring. The movie is very clear (perhaps too clear) about its themes of fathers, sons, and the woes they bestow on each other through inherited sin. The film does raise interesting questions about one’s freedom to break out of the cycle and chart a new path (the “open road” last shot pretty much sums it up), and in many ways it inverts the logic of the “we are cursed by our forebears” approach. But it’s still a film that hammers home the havoc that is wrought in families based on decisions made higher up the family tree.
On the surface, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now seems mostly to be a simple, sweet high school love story. And it is that. But the film’s second half spends a good deal of time explaining the brokenness of its protagonist, Sutter (Miles Teller), by–you guessed it–revealing the utter deadbeat-ness of his deadbeat dad (Kyle Chandler). The film makes a point of noting that these kids are part of a generation of divorce and broken homes. Sutter has a hard time thinking of any friends whose parents aren’t divorced. He and Aimee (Shailene Woodley, whose parents we never even see on screen) must succeed in spite of that fact. When it comes to healthy relationships, their parents didn’t give them much to work with, did they? Or so the film suggests.
Destin Daniel Cretten’s Short Term 12 is perhaps the most explicit and wrenching in its depiction of the way parents screw up their kids. Set in a group home, where abandoned, orphaned, and abused kids reside temporarily before the “system” figures out a permanent solution, Short Term 12 is about how weary, broken, love-hungry kids can beat the odds stacked so heavily against them. Almost every character in this movie is under the age of 30, and every single one of them has major issues on account of their negligent, absent, abusive or otherwise imperfect parents. Even the film’s heroine (Brie Larson), whose job it is to help heal the broken young people under her care, is majorly struggling with her own parents’ despicable failures.
What gives? Why all the movies about parents going wrong in parenting and children doing their best to compensate for the missteps of their upbringing?
Even in Sofia Coppola’s underrated The Bling Ring, which (unlike the three films discussed above) does not condone or sympathize with the behavior of its young subjects, parents are depicted as disturbingly negligent, enabling and foolish (see Leslie Mann’s Secret-quoting “cool mom”). Coppola isn’t as direct in tracing her teen characters’ troubles to their bad parents as opposed to their own bad choices, but the connection is still there.
Part of this trend surely has to do with the fact that today’s young people have grown up in a world of therapy and psychology, where a sophisticated understanding of how one is shaped by one’s family (particularly one’s parents) is not only normal but expected. We are a generation that has grown up more fascinated by nurture than nature. We are told we are living a “story” and that we are our story is both an offshoot of our parents’ stories and ours to continue in whatever direction we’d like. The simultaneous belief in both the determinative power of the cards we’ve been dealt and our sovereign power to reinvent and redeem ourselves is a tension we hold dear (sometimes favoring one belief over the other, when it’s convenient). In any case, it makes for good drama and good stories (hence all these movies).
Sarah Polley’s excellent documentary, Stories We Tell, is another example of a recent film exploring the ways our parents’ stories shape our own, for good or ill. As she tries to find out who her parents are and were, Polley shows us just how captivated we are by our own heritage and how much love, resentment, anger, confusion and hope can be bound up within our understanding of being someone’s son or daughter.
All of these films suggest that an individual’s brokenness, frailty and failings are in large part a product of the brokenness, frailty and failings of their parents. An obvious enough point. Sin is a generationally perpetuating thing, after all. But sin is also something to be owned individually. And let’s face it: brokenness is often just a softer way of saying sin. Even as I empathize with the young people in Place, Spectacular, and Short Term 12, and understand how rough their paths have been made by their parents, I know that they are ultimately accountable for what they do with what they’ve been given, just as I am. We can only blame our parents so much. All of us have problems. All of us are problems. But in spite of ourselves and in spite of our families, new life is possible. Thanks be to God.