Before I was a dad, I could watch just about anything in a movie. No matter how gruesome (the ear scene from Reservoir Dogs) or emotionally devastating (the early, pre-Hitler-comments work of Lars von Trier), if the movie seemed worth seeing, I wasn’t going to be scared off. I even took some pride in my cinematic constitution, probably compensating for my tendency to go all faint when faced with blood in real life.

Then I became a parent, and, to use an overused phrase, everything changed. Oh, I can still watch the gruesome stuff, and even some of the emotional gut-punch stuff, though I’ll admit that when push comes to shove, neither make it into the DVD player all that often anymore. (A different issue, that, more related to time and exhaustion). What I can’t watch—and I really mean I often have to leave the room or switch them off—are films that use endangered children as a suspense device.

And they’re everywhere! Either it’s getting worse or (OK, more likely) I simply never noticed pre-parenthood how much Hollywood relies on threats to the lives or psyches of kids to ramp up the stakes. And while I could once blithely chomp popcorn while someone hurled horrific verbal abuse at a four-year-old, or a character raced to save his children from being killed by anything from a psychopathic killer to genocide, I now feel my heart start to race at the mere suggestion that such a scene is approaching.

I have discovered a hierarchy of tolerance. Action movies rely on danger to kids quite a lot, but they’re also often cartoony and unreal, which takes a lot of the edge off; in most  cases, my long experience with movie tropes has provided me with a mantra I can use at tense moments: “It’s a Hollywood action movie; there’s no way anything really bad will happen to the kids.” Still, sometimes, when the threat it’s wrapped up in good writing and strong acting…well, you have the Gary Oldman-Aaron Eckhart sequence near the end of The Dark Knight, a scene I found nearly unbearable. (Even the mantra failed me there, that being the sort of movie I figured just might violate it.)

As for dramas, they’re brutal territory, and a good number of the big, serious ones each year—the ones under serious Oscar consideration most years—carry parental high risk. Sometimes I even get upset with the filmmakers: Syriana, a movie of the type I usually enjoy most, had a scene involving the son of Matt Damon’s character (I’m trying desperately to avoid spoilers here) that I found not merely painful but sadistic. Yes, danger to children was integral to the plot and the message of the film; that’s my problem. But the way it was handled was out of a horror movie, which in that hyper-real setting felt unnecessary and even unforgivable. Making the leadup to the event in question as awful as possible for the parents in the audience didn’t advance the plot or the message further, so I felt like the director was just seeing how much he could emotionally manipulate his audience—and that made me mad.

It’s reactions like that that make me realize how much becoming a parent has done something strange and irrevocable to my brain. I’m almost certain that while I still might have objected to the heavy-handedness of that scene in Syriana before I was a parent, it would not have made me want to punch the director.

So now my wife—who shares this pathology—and I are a bit gun-shy when we go through our Netflix queues for a look back at the movies we didn’t see in theaters six months ago (in other words, all of them—but that’s yet another different issue). This past season was a relatively safe one, with Black Swan and The Fighter and The Social Network problematic only for parents of young adults with specific career choices, and The King’s Speech entirely safe, to all appearances. But there were still some alarm bells: True Grit? Kid in danger, though maybe mitigated by her apparent toughness (as well as the wild card of this being the Coen brothers). Winter’s Bone? Looks as if the main character isn’t really a child, but somehow I’m still leery. Biutiful? We love Javier Bardem, but this has all the marks of a violator. And Rabbit Hole? It may be brilliant, but I’m staying the hell away. (Plus, there’s Aaron Eckhart again—is he some kind of human Klaxon for parents?)

This is, I realize, all insane. But it’s also necessary to avert days of emotional recovery that we no longer have the energy for. I’m hoping that once our kids are no longer young, these feelings will no longer be quite as intense—it is mainly young kids and their perfectly symbolic innocence that movies enjoy threatening, after all. Maybe someday I will be able to walk boldly into a harrowing drama without having researched it intensely first for any signs of threats to kids. And until then, I guess it’s The King’s Speech for us. (Think maybe that’s why it won the Oscar…?)

Biutiful image courtesy of Focus Features


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Comments (9)


  1. Posted by: Julia

    Myles, I am with you and your wife… it’s hard not to feel manipulated when it’s a potential danger for my child – when I watched Syrianna I had just learned I was pregnant and I found the scene you mention absolutely repugnant.

    The only exception are Jody Foster’s movies, but then again, she’s a very conscious mother.

    I don’t know what’s the point of alienating parents in the public… maybe because they don’t spend as much money going to the cinema as the non-parenting crowd? Maybe because that’s a “but you’re not going to get all PC with us, will you”?

    Anyway, that’s Hollywood. Violence is for free, but a sex scene (even one representing love) is considered offensive.

  2. Ten minutes into Syriana, my husband silently got up and left the room – and never came back. I called after him, sobbing, “Do you want to put in a different movie?”. But we both knew it was over. And since then, there are very few movies at our house unless it stars the likes of Will Ferrell.

    As you said, our brains have been irrevocably changed. And even the most lauded movies are shunned because we can’t handle the intensity anymore. Our lives just seem that much more tenuous, I guess. And I get plenty of drama at home, thank you very much.

  3. Posted by: Heidi

    It’s not insane at all. I totally agree. I’ll never be able to watch Jodie Foster’s “Flightplan,” for example, just because of the missing child aspect. (Or “Taken,” for that matter.)

    But I have seen “Winter’s Bone” and “True Grit” and they are less about violence against children than they are about strong adolescent female protagonists, so you may be able to tolerate those better.

  4. Posted by: Craig

    Wow – took the words right out of my mouth. I was a movie addict. I watched everything that available, even became the local movie reviewer for a television affiliate, and never had any qualms about the violence I was seeing, and the whole issue of kids in danger never even hit my radar.

    Then I became a dad, and it was like a switch was instantly flipped in my head, or maybe my heart. I literally cannot watch a movie where there’s even a hint of a threat to a child – this is no exaggeration. I remember going to see 28 Grams shortly after the birth of our first son, and I was devastated. I still won’t see Slumdog Millionaire, due to the things I’ve heard about the scenes of intense poverty and the children experiencing it. 10 years ago, if you told me that I would one day skip Best Picture Oscar winner due to “intense imagery,” there’s nothing you would have been able to do to convince me.

    Of all the things that happen when “everything changed” upon having kids, this was the one that I least expected.


    There is a film (which I haven’t seen) called Funny Games. From what I’ve read about it, some bad guys show up at a family’s house, and (again – spoiler!) kill everyone throughout the movie, including the young son. Even though I believe in this writer/director’s right to free speech, I was emotionally outraged at the content. I couldn’t even understand how the stars (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) who have children themselves, could convince themselves to make this film. The director, however, said that he wanted to make a film that truly made people feel the impact of violence, versus the Hollywood nonsense that the studios regularly spit out. His point was: sometimes the bad guys win. Sometimes the kids die. And instead of anesthetizing us to this violence through movies, he wanted us to truly feel the impact of these actions.

    Very torn internally about his position. I get it, but… ugh. So painful.

  5. I’m sort of glad to hear “Syriana” was a touchstone for this sort of thing, and that we weren’t alone there!

    And re the sex vs. violence absurdity, absolutely agree. (Though I think Hollywood has long been happy to push envelopes–that one I think has more to do with where the organized pushback has come from, historically, going back to the days of Joseph Breen…)

    What I find myself wondering is: Does this “transformation” fade, and when? I think it sort of has to, right? I mean, Hollywood can’t be writing off the entire audience of anyone who’s ever had kids for its dramas…. I need to talk to our parents’ generation more about this stuff. Curious if they feel ours is just more sensitive to this than they were, or if they went through it too and came out the other end.

  6. Posted by: Craig

    Great question Myles. I know this is just anecdotal data from 1 person, but my father says he still can’t watch scenes of kids in peril.

  7. Posted by: Julia

    Maybe it does fade when we realize our children aren’t all that innocent and are (just a little) evil? Maybe when we see them being able to defend themselves? Maybe when they join us as adults? Maybe… never?
    I personally cannot tolerate sexual violence and the subject of senility, but that’s way easier to avoid :-)

  8. Posted by: Camille

    I knew Rabbit Hole would never make it into my DVD player. Recently I rewatched Gone, Baby, Gone; the first time I saw it was before my daughter was born. There is a subplot about a kidnapped little boy and those scenes made me almost physically ill. Just the thought of it now turns my stomach.

    In the Times’ review of The Lovely Bones, the critic pointed out how often these days the death or endangerment of a child is used in movies, so I don’t think it’s just your impression that it’s getting worse.

  9. Posted by: jill

    whatever you do, don’t watch “little children”! ugh. so emotionally irresponsible.

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