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