the impossible

Pop-Culture Parenthood: Does Becoming a Parent Change the Way You Experience Movies?

Photo: Summit Entertainment

People say “everything’s different after you become a parent,” and it certainly felt that way two Fridays ago, when Adam Lanza opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary. Whether consciously or not, I avoided the TV all weekend, taking my news from a couple of daily web and newspaper hits. The pundit and pop-culture blogger James Lileks later remarked that he’d decided to stay out of politics for the day, saying only, “There’s not a parent in the country who doesn’t want to go to their child’s school and pick them up.” The same thing occurred to me. My son is almost 4, and those terrorized 6-year-olds in the news photos were not much bigger than he is.

But that’s the realest of life. Until a few years ago, I never had much of an outward emotional reaction to fiction — to movies, TV, books. I could get involved and lose myself in them, but weepies rarely made me weepy, and erotic thrillers have never left me erotically thrilled. This started to change before my son was born — chalk it up to being older, understanding people’s emotions better, having gone through more in life — but it took a sharp turn when he arrived in my life. Certain things, like Stephen Sondheim’s song “Children Will Listen,” which is about all the ways parents can wreck their kids’ lives, now turn me into a puddle. Lately, it’ll scroll up on iTunes while I’m typing away at my desk, and three or four minutes later I can’t get anything done.

It happened again to me last week while watching a movie. If you’re a parent, you almost can’t help projecting yourself onto a character like those played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor in the new film The Impossible. It’s about an upper-middle-class family — mom, dad, three boys — who arrive at a pretty seaside resort in Thailand for their Christmas 2004 break, and the next day are struck by the tsunami. And I do mean struck: They are swept into the mud and debris, and one of them ends up badly hurt. Most of the film revolves around the family members, who have been separated by the giant wave, as they try to find medical help and each other.

The oldest son in The Impossible is about 14, in an entirely different stage of life from my son, and (as you might expect) seeing him doesn’t resonate greatly for me. If anything, I found myself considering him a peer, wondering how I’d do in his situation — whether I’d have had the self-possession to take charge of things when I was his age. (By the way, the kid playing him, Tom Holland, is just incredibly talented. Serious poise, light touch, open face, all deployed through major parts of the movie.)

The two younger boys, though, were another matter. They are a little older than my son, but not dramatically so, and the younger kid — his name is Simon — even reminds me slightly of my boy. When their father grabbed them as the wave crashed into the resort, I physically flinched. When they were packed off into a truck to head to a temporary camp unattended, I cringed. Significantly, we don’t see precisely what happens to the smaller kids right after the moment of impact; I wonder whether the director, Juan Antonio Bayona, felt that visualizing it would be just too agonizing.

I’ll admit that most of my reactions came from the manipulation that is an inevitable part of good storytelling and polished direction. A few calculated bits of heartstring-tugging did take me out of the movie and spiked up my hokiness meter. (I also kept noticing that everyone who was anyone in this film was a fair-skinned Westerner; the literally millions of local people hurt or killed are barely a backdrop. The real family on which this film is based was Spanish, and apparently even they were too dusky to make the cut: Onscreen, the whole clan is impossibly blond.) But there are relatively few of those moments, and I came away moved and wrung-out. Bayona’s an extreme realist here, and that’s also generally the kind of art I respond to most deeply. The children behaved like children, albeit rather poised ones; the injuries, especially a gasp-inducing close-up of a gash in Naomi Watts’s leg, looked like injuries.

Steven Spielberg once said that, after he had children, he changed his mind about the way he’d ended Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The dad who joins the aliens to head off into the galaxy, he said, was created “blithely …  Today, I would never have the guy leaving his family and going on the mothership.” The fact that he’s abandoning his children never crossed my mind when I saw that movie as a young person, and I suspect it would puzzle me now. (Though I will say that I’ve already spent half of this December school break indoors, and by the end of it, I suspect I’ll be ready for some quiet time in outer space.)

I also realized that fatherhood has changed my movie experience in a more concrete way: I see way fewer films in theaters than I used to. Babysitters are expensive, and most of my viewing is now done at home, and although we have a good surround-sound setup and a decent-size screen, it isn’t the same. That goes double for The Impossible, in which certain moments (like, early on, the crash of the wave itself) come with exquisitely crafted audio, and in which the camera occasionally pulls back and up, Gone With the Wind–style, to reveal the crowded chaos of an overwhelmed third-world hospital. I’m not used to this kind of visual punch anymore, and I felt it in the gut. Like James Lileks, I mostly wanted to go home afterwards and hug my kid, and I did.

Does Being a Dad Change the Way You Watch Film?