A Year of Movies with My Older Son
Parents, educators, and counselors are always looking for ways to help children and teens open up and have meaningful conversations. We all learn “tricks of the trade”: for example, starting conversations in the car, or at bedtime, or while doing any parallel activity: cooking, gardening, etc.
But as my eldest son has become a young man I have seen our roles switch. In the last year and a half he has been the one to invite me to have deeper, more meaningful conversations. It hasn’t been often, but when he has been home from college or when I have visited him, he has chosen a movie for us to watch. His criteria has been to pick a film that he wants to watch and that he thinks I’ll like too, even if it’s a challenge for me. He knows these thought provoking films lead to the best discussions afterward.
He has had a long time passion for independent film-making and majored in this field in college, but he was drawn to deep questions long before his interest in film. When he was five years old he asked, “Does everything real die, mommy?” I replied, “I think so.” He retorted thoughtfully, “Then Santa’s either not real, or he’s dead.” Astounded, I pleaded, “Please don’t tell your brother.” Then we had an interesting conversation about how spiritual things can be real in their own way.
Fast forward lots of years, and this year he graduated from college and moved out into his own apartment. Eldest children bear the brunt of all their parents’ learning curves. Each stage of growing up is so different, so parenting at each stage needs to adapt and evolve as well.
It’s not new information but what I have culled about parenting young adults (from authors, other parents, clients and my adult children themselves), is that it’s mostly about letting them go. I have learned the importance of allowing failure to become their teacher more than me, even as I remain a soft place for them to land and regroup. I have learned to give advice only when asked, even though I fail at this all the time. And I have learned to celebrate and expect independence whenever possible, but also to be as generous as I can with gifts of cash and meals.
Nevertheless there are also meaningful, adult conversations to be had, about life, death, and everything in between. It’s just harder to start them when you’re not putting children to bed anymore. In this case, I recommend my son’s idea about turning off easy television and watching (or doing) something together that’s more challenging and thought-provoking.
I began to notice this shift last year after the funeral of a friend of mine who died tragically young in a skiing accident. The funeral was held close enough to Boston that I visited my son at college the next day. When I got there he said, “This will probably be way too intense for you but I’d really like to see ‘Son of Saul’.” I thought to myself, “I just went to a very sad funeral, I’d much rather see something light-hearted today. But with my out-loud voice I said, ‘Sure, no problem.’
The thing is, as intense as it was, ”Son of Saul” was actually incredibly good. The director (Lazlo Nemes) made a realistic film about life in a World War II concentration camp but he chose not to titillate the audience with gratuitous violence. Instead he focused on compelling us to understand the depth of the main character’s emotional horror over his physical horror. The story focuses on a man trying to get a young boy his last rites after he has died in the gas chamber. He thinks the boy is his son, but the truth of this is questionable.
Oddly enough my son often chooses movies for us to watch that are about the relationship between a parent and a child, which of course I find interesting. However, he says that most films are about relationships and asks me not to read anything into his film selections except that he is interested in seeing them.
Maybe it’s just my natural tendency to be hard on myself but it’s impossible for me not to wonder when he chooses a film like, “Mommy” if he is secretly saying, “Yes Mom, I think our relationship is as dysfunctional theirs”.
This is a little too painful to contemplate so I decide to take my son’s advice and think about the film itself first, and wonder if there are any personal connections later. Xavier Dolan is a fascinating Canadian filmmaker and I highly recommend this film. It is about a single mother whose son struggles with mental illness. A year later I still remember the skateboarding scene/grocery cart scene and the tough ending.
In the subsequent discussion I listen to my son comparing himself more to the film-maker than to the character in the film. I am relieved that he is not associating us with this particular narrative or its inherent dysfunctions. I am also proud of him for his questions and ambitions.
Last winter when he came back after a semester in Los Angeles, the first film we watched was “La La Land.” Even more curiously, my younger son came with us to see that one. He is studying engineering, but he is used to his older brother asking him to be in his movies and seeing odd movies with him. I wasn’t sure what surprised me more though: my eldest film buff son being willing to see typical “Oscar bait,” or my younger son, being willing to watch a musical. All three of us enjoyed it though, if for different reasons. I particularly loved the chance to hang out with both of them which is a rare occurrence these days.
Once upon a time, when they were just six and four, I was a single mom. For the next few years, it was just the three of us, all the time. I remember the first weekend it was just us. I was determined to make lemonade out of lemons and went to ‘Toys ‘R’ Us’ and bought all three of us roller blades and we went roller blading with our neighbors. The pain and the freedom in this memory does remind me of the skateboarding scene in “Mommy” and the disillusionment and determination in “LaLa Land.”
So, I have to amend my son’s assertions that “a film is just a film that I want to see,” at least a little. He would also agree that all great art has a universal element in it. So, of course there is some of “us” in these films. Still, I try to steer away from interpretations that are overly judgmental. It certainly doesn’t feel like his choices are designed to judge me harshly. Oddly enough, it feels like the opposite, like somehow there is a compliment to me hidden in these film choices, but I can’t articulate why.
Early in the new year my eldest, who graduated college a semester early, came home for a couple of months while he was sorting out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. During that time we went to see “Paterson,” (directed by Jim Jarmusch). It was one of both of our favorites of the year. Partly notable because there was no parent-child relationship depicted, it was more a love story to a life that values simplicity. Relationships, art, ritual, were revered and technology, ambition, grandiosity were ousted. The poetry and the love relationship were particularly delightful to hear and witness.
Sometimes films can be life changing too. “Paterson,” in particular, helped my son confirm his decision to volunteer for Americorps, rather than move to NYC or LA to be more directly in the film industry. Seeing “Paterson” with him helped me understand his reasoning and also see the wisdom in his choice. I think this film also informed the beauty and simplicity of his own next film, “Siberia”. I am ever hopeful that my son will figure out how to make a good life for himself and pursue his passion for film-making in ways that are creative, unexpected and entirely his own.
Despite being a ‘Nervous Nellie’, it is actually exciting to watch his future unfold. For example I can see how a career in education, hopefully teaching film, would give him the chance to also make his own independent films. In this way he could stay true to his own vision without having to worry about the demands of commercialism. Who knows, maybe he’ll choose a different path entirely, but I like the way he is trying to figure out how to contribute something good in the world, stay true to his vision and pursue a path that will help him survive financially as well.
“White Material” by famed director Claire Denis was the next film we saw. It is a movie about an ex-pat mother living in Africa who made prideful choices that contributed to the destruction of her son as well as her own way of life. As an ex-pat mother myself, (I’m originally from England) I definitely noticed the warnings implied in this movie: Warnings about how being over-protective of our children can backfire; how blind we can be to our own flaws; and how great loves (of country, of children) can also become one of those blinding flaws.
The extent of the mother’s flaws in this film actually serve to make me feel better about my own. For example, I start to feel a bit better when I plaintively acknowledge that I haven’t understood a certain film or part of it. In turn, I notice my son becoming a little less adolescent in his contrived shock that I don’t automatically know what the film means, and a little more patient and kind explaining what he thinks it means.
He has spent quite a few years separating at this point and these conversations about movies we have seen start to feel like a bridge between two similar, yet very different adults. His ideas help me formulate my own, and I hope, vice-versa.
In the spring we saw “Certified Copy” which was directed by Abbas Kiarostami. This is a beautiful movie that explores the metaphor of a ‘certified copy’ on many levels. This was another time my son had to explain some of the film to me after it was over. But I noticed both of us minding this less and less. It seems like this is what makes a great film, great: There is as much to think about after the film is over as there is to think about while watching it. My favorite metaphor from this film was that a step-parent is like a ‘certified copy’: They are not the original parent, but a truly great ‘certified copy’ can be as good or sometimes even better than the original.
Step-parents often get cast in an even worse light than mothers, so it was heart-warming to see this perspective unfold in a way that wasn’t superficial, but actually in a way that felt very real and true. My sons have a step-dad and neither side talk about their relationship very much, but it’s impossible not to wonder and be grateful for things that are said in movies which are very difficult to say in real life. It’s a bit like paying attention to the symbolic meanings in our dreams. Symbolism helps us confront important questions sideways rather than head on. This makes them less threatening, kind of like having a tough conversation is easier when we’re in the car than when we’re facing each other.
Most recently we watched two beautiful Japanese films, “Still Walking” (directed by Hirokazu Koreda) and “Suzaku” (directed by Naomi Kawase). Both films were about a family and how they healed from a great loss, and how they didn’t, individually and collectively. The slowness and the precision of each movie helped draw you in, as though you were both an American outsider and could be part of this Japanese family yourself. The scenery in “Suzaku” was especially and profoundly beautiful. It is one of my son’s all time favorite films and I can see why: It’s the kind of film that brings up deep emotion, quietly, and unexpectedly.
Finally, both these films also show the mother figures in a better light. Well, not all of the mother figures are thought of highly, but some of them. The mother who is most well thought was a single mother who re-married. Trying to integrate herself and her son into her new extended family, she was quietly strong, capable of making decisions that were healing for all and able to retain a sense of humor.
I fell asleep in “Suzaku” in a kind of head-nodding rhythmic way which seemed in time to me with the grandmother in the film who was also sleeping in a head-nodding way. I tried so hard to stay awake, fearful that it would hurt my son’s feelings to fall asleep in his favorite movie. Instead he quoted, Abbas Kiarostami, “I prefer films that put their audience to sleep. Some films have made me doze off in the the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep thinking about them for weeks.”
Sometimes it’s good not to over-analyze things, but instead to let an idea simmer, knowing there is a deep meaning there but not trying to force it to the surface. Along these lines, I don’t want to draw too many conclusions from my son’s movie selections. I did want to write about them though and to remember them, and also to recommend them.
It’s challenging and scary to see movies and have conversations that are out of our comfort zone. When our children are young it may burden them to show them our vulnerability and expose our lack of knowledge. But as they become our adult children, and as long as they are still respectful to us, it is important to allow their generation to guide us in some ways, even as we still guide them in others. Finding ways and taking the time to open up and occasionally share our vulnerabilities helps us stay close and connected even after we have officially ‘let go’.
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” world: Either I let you go, or I hold on to you for dear life. In fact, it’s much, much easier to ‘let go’ when there is also a path to staying connected and close. The path may require trying out some challenging movies or (insert your own adult child’s passion here), but pushing ourselves to go out on a limb is also a good way to keep us young at heart. Most of all I hope our children will thank us for this one day, even if they can’t easily articulate why. I certainly know many adults who wished they had more vulnerable, meaningful conversations with their parents, but, for one reason or another, never did. Wouldn’t it be great if each subsequent generation gets better at this?