It’s easy to overlook Bob Balaban’s feature film directorual debut. The title sounds like one of those warm-hearted, family-friendly movies Steve Martin started making when he opted to stop being funny. A quick passing glance at the poster, and you might take it to be a wacky satire of Eisenhower-era suburbia. Even catching a few early minutes of the film while flipping through the cable channels and you might think it’s yet another movie about a young, withdrawn, weird kid with very straight and normal parents trying to get along in a new town and a new school.
That was clearly the intention—to sucker audiences in with the safe and the comfortable and the familiar—but while there are elements of all the above in 1989’s Parents, well, there’s something quite different and much more disturbing going on here, and it starts to make itself clear pretty quickly.
With a soundtrack that consists almost exclusively of commercial jingles and cocktail music, the film opens as a hyperstylized portrait of the late ‘50s suburban American dream: lawn sprinklers, backyard barbecues, a mother who’s a ramped up version of June Cleaver, and a horn-rimmed father with a good job and a pocket protector. Nick Laemle (Randy Quaid) gets a new job at a chemical research plant in a new town, so packs up his wife Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) and their quiet, moody, funny-looking son Michael (Bryan Madorsky, who is pretty amazing in his one and only film role), and moves into a perfect, idealized new tract house.
What opens as a typically bright, bouncy comedy about social mores begins to slip into the shadows on the family’s first night in the new house. Michael is afraid of the dark, is prone to nightmares, refuses to eat, and seems to know an awful lot about black magic. While leading him to bed, his dad tries to assure him there’s nothing to be afraid of in the dark. But what begins as a comforting talk any father might give his son soon slips toward the sinister.
From that point on we see most of the rest of the film through Michael’s bulbous eyes, and it slowly becomes much less bright, and much less bouncy. He catches brief glimpses of things through cracks in doorways, overhears snippets of conversation, can’t help but notice that they eat some kind of unrecognizable meat for every meal (and lots of it, too), and comes to the conclusion that his parents are cannibals.
(Admittedly, his dad’s comforting, uplifting talks might be more effective if he didn’t deliver them in a dark room while holding a flashlight under his chin, but what are you gonna do?)
On the surface, everything is as perfect as it should be. His mother is always smiling and chirpy and wearing a nice dress. His dad has a good job designing chemical weapons. They play bridge at the new boss’s house. There’s no real evidence that they’re eating people. In fact there’s more evidence that Michael is simply a disturbed child with an overactive and morbid imagination. So the question for much of the film becomes, is it true or is he just being paranoid?
There had been other black comedies about cannibalism prior to this—Spider Baby and Eating Raoul immediately come to mind—but I’m hard pressed to think of another that gets quite as dark as Parents. Things threaten to take a turn for the charming when Michael is befriended by Sheila (Juno Mills-Cockell), a tall, free-spirited, alcoholic girl who says she’s from the Moon and tells him she’s been left back a few grades for “doing things,” but that eventually takes a bad turn as well.
It’s a comedy, yes, but most of the laughs we get are nervous and uncomfortable. After Michael and Sheila make a mess of the wine cellar, his dad gives him another lecture: “You don’t look like me. You don’t act like me. You hate me. Well you know what, mister? I’m not so crazy about you, either.” It’s a funny line (especially with Quaid’s deadpan delivery), but funny in a way designed to make audiences wince.
After Michael’s teacher grows concerned over his, um, odd behavior, she brings in the school psychologist (Sandy Dennis, recreating fellow Altman alum Karen Black’s performance in a very similar role in the 1986 remake of Invaders From Mars), who becomes very interested in his case, with unfortunate results.
Meanwhile the circumstantial evidence continues to pile up and Michael continues to have nightmares that may or may not be nightmares. He becomes more adamant about not eating (in fact the only thing we see him eat willingly during the entire film is a small piece of carrot), and his parents grow more frustrated.
It’s to the credit of director Balaban, screenwriter Christopher Hawthorne, and all three central actors that it’s not until the last twenty minutes of the film that we finally learn if Michael is unbalanced or his parents really are cannibals. Even as the evidence adds up over the course of the film it could easily have gone in either direction, given that we’re already seeing a naturally twisted sterile suburban world through Michael’s sad, bulbous eyes. It’s all handled very well (and the nightmare sequences in particular are pretty horrific). Among the actors Randy Quaid remains the most notable, taking a break from his usual “aw, shucks” roles to play a cold, distant, and potentially murderous father who does not understand his weird son, and isn’t much interested in trying.
Even if the final shot of the film is cheap and predictable to anyone who’s watched The Twilight Zone, there are a number of ways to interpret the film: as a social commentary about the forced artificiality of suburban life (and all the masks we hide behind), as a study in dysfunctional parent/child relationships, as a hard look at what it’s like to be an outsider, or even as a satire about the horrors of eating meat. But I’ll leave that call up to the people who watch it.
Given the tone of the advertising campaign and the general prevailing mood in Hollywood and the country as a whole at that time, it would have been very easy and much more profitable to follow the over-the-top wacky, campy route a la Eating Raoul. The fact that Balaban chose to remain so low-key, unrelentingly grim, and blackly funny is something to be respected.