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What Makes a Great Movie Parent?

Sometimes movie families are so cool that you want to jump onscreen and ask to be adopted. With Mother's Day just behind us and Father's Day coming up, we ask, what are some key characteristics of great movie parents (that maybe we could learn from in real life)?

They Come Through in a Pinch (Kissing Jessica Stein)

Movie parents don't need to be perfect to be awesome. It's good for them to have a personality, which can mean a little friction with their kids. In Kissing Jessica Stein, Tovah Feldshuh is the Queen Bee as Mrs. Stein. She’s overbearing, constantly nagging her daughter Jessica to marry a nice Jewish boy. She bullies, she guilts, she even fixes her up with a dud. But when Jessica is at her most vulnerable and questioning her own sexuality, her mother lets her know that life is tough but survivable. She makes the overwhelming seem less so, and that’s an amazing parenting feat.

They're Chill (Easy A)

Movie parents are fictional, which lets them pull off laissez-faire without being negligent. It’s a dangerous dynamic in real life, but so charming in film. In Easy A, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci play eccentric, quippy parents to perfect child Olive (Emma Stone). Everyone talks like adults, even with Olive’s much-younger brother, and you can’t imagine they’ve ever had one of the standard teenage “I hate you” door-slam fights. Even when their daughter starts wearing lingerie to school, the parents hang back and don’t ask her why she’s dressed like a whore. They’re not oblivious; they just trust her to go through her own process. They know she wouldn’t completely change overnight. (Note: this might not be smart as teenagers routinely completely change overnight). It's perfect transition parenting for a college-bound kid who’ll be totally free from supervision in a year.

They Let the Kids Know When They Suck, but in the Nicest of Ways (Dan in Real Life)

Dan in Real Life features one of my favorite movie families, headed by Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney. In the film, their grown children (and their children) gather for an annual family reunion. It’s idyllic, with games of flag football and girls-versus-boys crossword puzzle competitions. Wiest and Mahoney are a perfect blend of wisdom, humor, and love. What makes them stand out is their willingness to register disapproval. Wiest always seems to know what’s best, managing to remain maternal and loving even when being firm. At one point, she tells her son (Steve Carell) to get lost. She’s not being mean; she just sees that her granddaughters need space from their overbearing dad. At his reluctance, she adds, “it’s not a request,” while wearing a smile so sweet you’d think she was offering him chocolate chip cookies.

They Put Things in Perspective (ParaNorman)

Young kids struggle to make sense of the world around them. If superhero movies tell us anything, it’s that one seemingly mundane moment of being ignored or teased can turn a kid into an evil villain bent on world domination (see The Incredibles). In ParaNorman, the main character, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is an unusual young boy who can talk to the dead. This habit often infuriates his disbelieving dad, especially when Norman claims to speak to his deceased grandmother. One night after Norman’s Dad blows his top, his mom tries to explain: “Sometimes people do things that seem mean, but they do it because they’re afraid.” It takes a while to sink in, but this piece of wisdom ends up being the difference between total destruction and a happy ending. The right advice can work that way in real life, too.

They Don’t Care What Other People Think (Little Miss Sunshine)

A mother should always be her child’s biggest fan. She should think her kid is the smartest, best-looking, most talented one on the block – even during the awkward phase, which can last 1-10 years. Toni Collette plays mom to Olive (Abigail Breslin) a 7-year-old who is excited about pageantry but doesn’t have the same Toddlers & Tiaras look as her competition. Backstage before the talent performance, Olive’s dad and brother try to talk her mom out of letting her perform in the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant, afraid she’ll be laughed off stage. Olive’s mom doesn’t waver, telling them, “We have to let Olive be Olive.” This is a tough call for the family, but since it lets Olive hang onto her innocence for a while longer, it’s an easy one for her mom to make.

These movie parents stand out because they swoop in during chaotic times and make things a little more manageable. Growing up requires breaking off as an individual and crafting your own universe. That process can be isolating, and it’s nice to be reminded that you’re still part of a team that has your back. If you had to choose, who are some movie parents you'd like to have, or even be yourself?

Note: I remember wanting to wiggle myself into Meryl Streep's family in It's Complicated, so I thought she might embody some great movie mom characteristics. Upon further review, I realized she's just rich and an amazing pastry chef.

 

 

 

 

 

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