Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Movies About Parenting

This week in theaters, Johnny Knoxville demonstrates how absolutely not to be a responsible role model for a child in ‘Bad Grandpa’. For today’s Roundtable, let’s take a look at some of our other favorite movies about the parenting (or grandparenting, as the case may be) experience.

Keep in mind that we did another Roundtable not too long ago about favorite coming-of-age movies. The difference between that one and this is that today’s picks should focus on the parents, not on the kids growing up.

Brian Hoss

This one’s easy. The Steve Martin-anchored ensemble cast of ‘Parenthood‘ tackles so many difficult, touching and funny parenting issues that the movie should probably be mandatory viewing for new parents. It has tons of pure humor, topped off by Steve Martin’s antics as birthday party clown Cowboy Gil. It’s a great family film that engages kids without completely shutting down grown-ups. Honestly, as we head into the wintery part of the year, I can’t think of a better movie to share with family members and with the assortment of new parents that I know.

Luke Hickman

Sam Mendes is an acclaimed director, but my favorite work of his is the under-appreciated ‘Away We Go‘. The film stars Jon Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as a couple who find themselves unexpectedly expecting. Not prepared for this unplanned bump in the road, they question their lifestyle and determine that it’s not how they want their kid to grow up. So, they go on the road in search of a new beginning worthy of their child.

Mrs. Hickman and I found ourselves in this exact same position just a year and half prior to seeing ‘Away We Go’, so the movie really spoke to us. The sentiments shared by the characters in the film were spot-on to how we felt as first-time parents. It poses introspective questions like, “How are we going to make this work?” and “How am I going to fully provide for my family?” and “What things do I want my kid exposed to?” plus many more. The genuine honesty of it resonates. Topping it off is Mendes’ intimate style. ‘Away We Go’ is not only an accurate portrayal of unplanned adult pregnancy, it’s a well-made film that deserves a lot more attention than it received.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

The movie that comes to my mind about parenthood is ‘Juno‘. Dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, 17-year-old smart-talker and high school student Juno MacGuff makes the choice to carry her baby to term. But it’s her parents’ reaction that’s even more unexpected. Allison Janney and J. K. Simmons as Bren and Mac MacGuff spend little time criticizing their daughter’s choices or bemoaning their predicament, and more time being fiercely supportive of her. Featuring clever dialogue penned by screenwriter Diablo Cody, ‘Juno’ reminds me that life happens, both good and bad, and it’s not our situation, but our reaction to it that defines us and our relationships with our families. I only hope to be half as level-headed and supportive of my own kids when they inevitably get themselves into trouble.

Michael Spike Steinbacher

Movies about parenting are among my least favorite. To my way of thinking, they tend to be overly sentimental and emotionally manipulative, and they’re almost always corny. As a genre, they’re right down there with insipid modern romantic comedies. My favorite, then, is one that manages to be vulgar and hilarious while avoiding such traps. National Lampoon’s ‘Vacation‘ was pretty unique for 1983. Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) tries to force his disinterested and annoyed family into enjoying family time on a cross-country trip to the Walley World theme park. Disaster, hilarity and insanity ensue. I first saw this movie on HBO in 1984 while on a similar road trip to L.A., and anyone who’s been on such a journey can find plenty to relate to. It’s a classic.

Shannon Nutt

Unlike most Roundtable topics, this week proved to be a tough choice for me, as I’m usually not drawn to (or actually see) movies that have to do with parenthood. However, one I did enjoy was ‘Father of the Bride Part II‘, in which George Banks (Steve Martin) finds out that not only is his daughter expecting, but his wife is as well. Granted, ‘Part II’ isn’t nearly as much fun as the first film, but when labor complications present themselves in the hospital and George – after complaining the whole movie about losing his chance for an empty nest – finally realizes that these two newcomers and the women that are giving birth to them are the most important things in his life, one can’t help but be touched.

Jack Lilburn

For me, it’s ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade‘. I always found the dynamic between Henry Jones, Sr. and Indiana supremely entertaining yet oddly moving. Henry was a lousy dad, and Indy is an angry son. Essentially, we’re watching teenager and middle aged father work out parenting issues 30 years too late – all the time with Nazis chasing after them. Top notch stuff.

Daniel Hirshleifer

I’m going to stray a little off the beaten path and discuss a film whose relation to parenting seems tenuous, but is in fact central to the movie’s themes. The picture in question is David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead‘. Frequently cited as one of the weirdest movies ever made, ‘Eraserhead’ is most well known for Lynch’s dark, industrial textures and the image of a man listening to a tiny chipmunk-cheeked woman singing from inside his radiator. However, peel away the initial layers of weirdness and you’ll find that the heart of the film is parental anxiety.

Lynch has said in interviews that the movie was partly inspired by the birth of his first child, Jennifer, who was born with clubbed feet and needed several surgeries at a young age. Indeed, much of the story is devoted to Henry Spencer’s (Jack Nance) reactions to caring for his bastard mutant child. The Kafka-esque nature of the film (the term “Lynchian” had not yet been invented, as this was the director’s debut feature) highlights the existential dread with which Spencer views his offspring. Books can and have been written about the symbolism in ‘Eraserhead’, but it just goes to show that not everyone views parenthood as a joyous experience.

Mike Attebery

As someone who grew up with divorced parents, there’s a lot I relate to in ‘Kramer vs. Kramer‘. Frankly, the entire experience sucks for everyone involved. As a work-at-home father, there’s even more that I relate to in the way Ted Kramer connects with his child. If you want to read a thorough and heartfelt examination of this, please read David Krauss’ 2009 review of the Blu-ray, because he nails it.

Five days a week, when I’m not editing reviews and pushing buttons behind the scenes at HDD, my daughter and I have our own domestic routines, separate from those she has with my wife in the evenings and over the weekend. While working and taking care of a child can be utterly exhausting, it’s been an amazing experience, one that’s given me a deeper appreciation for ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ than I could ever have imagined.

One more thing: The scene of Kramer carrying his injured son through the streets of Manhattan after the young boy takes a horrible fall from a playground jungle gym – that is the stuff of nightmares for any parent.

Josh Zyber

Having only previously made one feature, the noirish James M. Cain-inspired thriller ‘Blood Simple’, no one had yet come to understand what to expect from the Coen brothers as filmmaking auteurs. Rather than repeat themselves with a similar project (which they wouldn’t do until many years later with ‘Fargo’), the directors went in a completely different direction with the screwball comedy ‘Raising Arizona‘, in which a hapless ex-con H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and his baby-obsessed yet barren wife Edwina (Holly Hunter) concoct a scheme to abduct one of wealthy local businessman Nathan Arizona’s infant quintuplets – under the reasoning that he has too many children to know what to do with anyway, and they’re actually balancing the scales by taking one off his hands.

Needless to say, the businessman doesn’t agree. His efforts to reclaim his lost son spell bad news for everyone. Through it all, and despite their many misguided actions, Hi and Ed strive to be good parents to young Nathan, Jr., fretting over whether to get him a dip-tet inoculation and only allowing him to watch two hours a day of educational TV or football – so that he doesn’t ruin his appreciation of the finer things.

The movie is goofy and surreal and totally idiosyncratic, and showcases the full flourish of the Coens’ oddball sense of humor without restraint. Both audiences and critics at the time were totally perplexed by it. Many initial reviews were mixed to negative. Yet the film took on a second life through TV airings and home video, and has endured as an ’80s comedy classic.

What movies have you gleaned the most insight about parenting from? Tell us in the Comments.

17 comments

  1. Timcharger

    Wasn’t there a fatherhood roundtable during Father’s Day?

    I’m pretty sure, I mentioned this then. But it’s still true now.

    The Road is the best example I can thing of, of being the best parent in the bleakest of times.

    How Viggo guides (literally guides his son on this Road of life) his son in the most desperate of times.

    Everything is lost, all is gone, except for the hope he has for his son.

    How he raises his son. What he teaches him about compassion. What he teaches him about good and evil. What Viggo is willing to do about life itself (his own life & his son’s life) when it comes to saving his son.

    Romantic comedies or cute fun family comedies don’t move me on the parenting themes.

    Morbid, apocalyptic movies like the Road, that’s where parenting lessons are best learned. πŸ™‚

  2. Always felt like Juno was smug BS. Big fan of Parenthood and Father of the Bride though. I love the “daddy I met a man and he’s wonderful and we’re getting mawwied” sequence in that where Martin imagines his daughter still being a kid.

    For adoption style parenthood I’ve always enjoyed that part of Star Wars, with Obi Wan trying his best to teach Luke how to be a man while redirecting his anger and teaching him that violence and power are not really synonomous. It’s something that Vader never learned and Luke is someone Obi Wan and Yoda want to understand it, but he can’t guarantee that the lessons will sink in.

    Road to Perdition is also excellent.

      • Josh Zyber
        Author

        You don’t think Away We Go is smug? The whole plot of that movie had the characters travelling around the country to condescendingly pass judgment on all their friends for being lousy parents compared to what awesome and amazing parents they were going to be.

  3. A few years ago I saw picture on a TCM marathon of Cary Grant movies called Room For One More that I thought was a very idealistic depiction of parenthood. Betsy Drake and Cary Grant play a married couple w/ 2 kids and Drake (as the bleeding heart mother) takes the opportunity to try and help a troublemaker orphan girl by bringing her into their home as a foster child. Their success with that child propels them (against the immediate hesitancy of Grant) to go after a second, even more troubled child.

    It’s the kind of film that would appeal greatly to fans of The Blind Side as they’re very similar in tone, character and the family dynamics, and even appeal to many of The Blind Side’s critics because the sentimentality and struggles are shared by a very average American family with an average income trying to give an ordinary childhood to a pair of troubled kids; as opposed to a family of exceptional income helping a troubled elite athlete.

  4. Paul

    Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa” has some great parenting by Billy Bob and Lauren Graham! The scene where he eats all of Thurman Merman’s holiday chocolate, while in a drunken stupor, is hilarious. Parenting 101 right there!

  5. I think Paddy Considine gave a great performance as the patriarch in Jim Sheridan’s In America. He and Samantha Morton showed some real struggle trying to keep their family together after immigrating to NYC.

  6. T.

    I hate Parenthood.and agree Juno is manipulative hipster crap. This is 40 is ridiculously underrated and is instantly relatable for me personally. Vacation is great and Eraserhead boils impending fatherhood down to a fever dream nightmare.

  7. William Henley

    I LOVED Parenthood – always have. It is one of the few shining examples where you have an all-star cast, the movie seems to be written specifically for those actors, and it is just a freaking-good movie. I also love how Keanu Reeves’ character suddenly has to detach from being “Ted” for a while and actually has some deep moments and how we see an evolution of his character in the film.

    Actually, I guess all the characters grow over the course of this film. It is one of the things that makes this movie great – the movie starts out by appearing that all these characters have – or rather present – the illusion of a perfect family life, but then you find out that it is not that perfect, but then you figure out that the shortfallings are what makes life worth living. The roller-coaster reference is probably one of the deepest takes on life I have ever heard made in a movie.