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Rob Edelman: Family Dysfunction

Across the years, countless films that spotlight dysfunctional families have featured scenes in which mothers and fathers are screaming and yelling at each other and perhaps even resorting to violence. They are unaware that they are being overheard and observed by their children, or perhaps they do not even care. Meanwhile, the reaction shots of the young ones, which spotlight the hurt and sadness that they are feeling in the moment, serve as a textbook example of the adage that a picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words.

These images came to mind while seeing two first-rate new films that recently have arrived on or momentarily will be coming to DVD. The first is WHAT MAISIE KNEW, which is an updating of a Henry James novel. WHAT MAISIE KNEW features Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as a contemporary married couple who have come to loathe one another. She is a self-centered rock star. He is a self-centered art dealer. Each one professes to love Maisie, their young daughter. But clearly, to the mother and the father, Maisie is nothing more than a pawn. The attention they pay her is manifestly insincere, and Maisie is old enough to pick up on this. 

But Maisie still is a child. She still is in dire need of true love and guidance. Indeed, the two adults who really care about her welfare are not her biological mom and dad. They are her parents’ new partners, an ex-nanny and a young bartender. Certainly, WHAT MAISIE KNEW is a sobering reminder that biological parents often are not the best-equipped for raising their children.

The second film is titled BOY, and its country of origin is New Zealand. The year is 1984, the setting is a seaside Maori village in rural New Zealand, and the title character is a pre-teen dreamer who adores Michael Jackson. But Boy’s true hero is no pop star. It is instead the youngster’s long-absent father. Boy endlessly fantasizes about his dad, envisioning him as a war hero and a deep sea diver. However, the father is no real-life superman. He is no role model. He is, instead, a stoner, a criminal, and an all-around jerk who’s been doing jail time for robbery. 

The plot is set into motion when he arrives home, and Boy is compelled to confront the hard reality of his father’s true nature. When this truth finally dawns on him, it is the equivalent of a hard slap across his face. And the expression on Boy’s face, which first is a look of bewilderment but which quickly transforms to anger, is inevitable given the film’s story arc.

But it nonetheless is poignant-- and powerful.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.