★★★ / ★★★★
Michael (Bryan Madorsky) and his family (Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt) have recently moved to the suburbs: a new house, a new school, and a new perspective concerning what his parents put on the dinner table. Michael fears his father greatly; it is better not to make eye contact unless it is demanded. While Michael finds his mother tolerable, he also keeps her at arm’s length. Every night, the three of them eat together like most model families in the 1950s. Without fail, Michael pretends to be full because he suspects that the nicely garnished meat that sits on the plate is human flesh.
“Parents,” written by Christopher Hawthorne, is an uncompromisingly bleak dark comedy that I had trouble digesting despite my admiration for its daring decision to thrust a kid into increasingly dangerous situations. But what differentiates the film from being a simple-minded exploitation picture is that it allows us to be with the little guy every step of the way. For instance, since Michael is in a constant state of fear, his subconscious forces him to experience all sorts of vivid nightmares. The camera is always behind or next to him as we see a hand sticking out of garbage disposal, blood seeping out of the refrigerator, and the bed sinking in an ocean of blood.
Madorsky does a wonderful job not just in looking absolutely terrified, especially when the father gives him a suspicious look, but also in reeling in our greatest sympathies. His character is a child who believes that there is no one he can turn to. After sitting through nicely-paced spying that occasionally ends in almost getting caught, we want to see him escape his potentially cannibalistic parents by exposing their extracurricular activities—if they are, in fact, murderers and cannibals.
When Michael is not at home, he is at school, bonding with a girl (London Juno) who is also relatively new. Naturally, the duo eventually make grim discoveries that may or may not only reside in their heads. Bob Balaban, the director, is fastidious in building suspenseful scenes. Because of the uneven beats between action and reaction, images normally considered as clichés end up providing just the right amount of impact.
Moreover, there is variation in the outcomes of Michael’s investigations. Just when we believe he is safe, he gets caught at the final teeth-chattering second. At times, though, when we are convinced that it is game over for the boy, he is saved by a noise or some other unforeseen element without coming off as cheap.
However, I wished that the picture had dedicated more scenes between Michael and Millie Dew (Sandy Dennis), the school psychologist. Their very limited interactions are fascinating. One of the best scenes involves Millie showing Michael a picture and the former asked the latter what he thinks of it. The kid is struck by horror and which implies that something terribly wrong is happening in the photo. In fact, the picture is simply showing two parents tucking in their child for bed.
“Parents,” almost Lynchian in its confident surrealism and irony, is a forgotten gem but it does not deserve to remain that way. It may be hard to swallow at times due to some of the questions it dares to ask about the darkest corners of child psychology but it is worth the uncomfortable viewing.