The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although it presents the viewers with a colorful mix of wide-ranging subjects, from humorous byproducts of culture shock to a country in the grip of a grim military dictatorship, Cao Hamburger’s “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” never wavers from letting us absorb the story from the perspective of a twelve-year-old child. This great focus is especially effective during the most dramatic moments when lives are irrevocably changed. At one point the audience is left to wonder what will become of the boy, how his collective experience in the multiethnic district in São Paulo would shape the man he will become.
Not once does the film reduce the child into a stereotype. Compare this to American Hollywood pictures, especially comedies, in which children are almost always shown to be some kind of magnet for trouble and their biggest fear is punishment of some kind. It is significantly more subtle here, more relatable, and certainly more honest about how it is like to be a pre-teen. As children, we have all been in situations where we found ourselves in trouble and for a second or two we had no idea what we did to deserve proper scolding.
This effective snapshot of childhood is due to the director’s ability to make one smart decision after another to allow the audience to observe that at times Mauro (Michel Joelsas) fails to take into account possible repercussions of his actions even though he is a good kid. Hamburger commands a high level of control from behind the camera, particularly having the patience in allowing scenes to unfold organically. A child’s curiosity almost always trumps a child’s fear of punishment. It is exciting to watch because it breeds unpredictability.
Images are captured beautifully, particularly the early 1970s vibe of a country undergoing political turmoil. Although the story is filtered through the eyes of a child, there are serious implications to be discovered and digested given that one can be bothered to look a little more closely, especially in the background of a public space. Look underneath the veneer of football-obsessed culture and notice faces that are deathly afraid of being pointed out or being implicated as a communist.
I enjoyed small moments that capture a young person’s curiosity. An example is how the camera focuses on Mauro’s face for an extra beat as he wonders about why important adults in his life (Germano Haiut, Caio Blat) are whispering by the window. Could these secret conversations be about his parents who decided to go on “vacation”? We are provided numerous scenes that depict a child’s innocence being hammered by adult-oriented external factors and it is refreshing how Hamburger manages to find different ways to show how a young person processes a set of actions.
It is apparent that those involved in making “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” have true understanding of child psychology. Notice how so many scenes rarely have anything to do with the main plot. This is because the material is aware of what sort of things create lasting impressions on a child. Playing with other kids in the neighborhood, creating social contracts with them; realizing that adults are not always strong, that they are vulnerable, have weaknesses, yet seemingly ready at putting on masks of strength and perseverance; wrestling with one’s feelings of abandonment, that parents will not always be around for support. Here is a film that offers rich details for those willing to look.