By Preston Wilder
If Mom and Dad were better, it might be unwatchable. This pitch-black, hyperactive horror comedy is feeble, underplotted, clunky, cacophonous – but the chaos offers some relief, a certain distance from its disturbing premise; a non-chaotic, coolly calculated film on this subject might’ve been unbearable. (Watch the unnerving Emelie from a couple of years ago to see a case of child abuse played with cool calculation.) The film is all premise, indeed the first 30 minutes are set-up and the whole thing clocks in at under 90; there aren’t too many ideas, beyond the main one. I suspect it’ll be impossible to write about it without giving too much away, so stop reading now if you want to go in un-spoilered.
The director is Brian Taylor, who – as one half of Neveldine/Taylor – made the insane Jason Statham vehicle Crank in 2006 (and its even more insane sequel three years later). The star is Nicolas Cage, who… well, we all know what Nicolas Cage is like. He responds to “We need to talk” with a mocking “Oh, do we ‘need to talk’?”, speaking the words in a campy falsetto. He destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while loudly singing ‘The Hokey Pokey’. He speaks, rather randomly, of “anal beads”. Yes; but he also delivers a speech on the horrors of getting older – the shock, for a man, of growing fat and bald and weary, and feeling your body give way – which is demented, yet totally heartfelt.
Getting older is twinned, in this movie, with becoming a parent. “We used to be Kendall and Brent,” sighs Cage (as Brent) to his wife Kendall (Selma Blair); “Now we’re just… Mum and Dad”. I know it’s the way it’s meant to be, he laments, but I just can’t get used to it – a thoughtful existential conversation complicated slightly by the fact that he and Kendall are meanwhile trying to murder their kids, who are cowering in the basement.
Who is this film about? Cage is the big name (though Blair, a beguiling actress, should be even bigger), and the reason why such a weird low-budget oddity is showing in Cyprus in the first place – but the ostensible heroes are the kids, teenage Carly (Anne Winters) and her little brother Josh (Zackary Arthur), trying to escape Mum and Dad as parents everywhere turn on their children. Then again, that’s not really accurate either. The three (actually two) little pigs are cute in this movie – but its true protagonists are the pair of big bad wolves out to get them, living every parent’s secret (and horrendously guilty) fantasy.
You spend years leading up to it, says Kendall. “This bigger thing. All your life, you know it’s coming”: the day when you’ll magically create another life, a whole other person. It’s always there, at the back of your mind – then it happens and it’s suddenly over, the magic gone. The whole other person becomes an obnoxious teenager who mocks you for using ‘Facebooking’ as a verb and responds to sage advice with “Yeah, whatever”. Being a parent is wearying and thankless; everything you do is wrong. You’re old, in a culture that fetishises the new: it’s absolutely no coincidence that Carly’s teacher tells the class about ‘planned obsolescence’, our modern impatience with last year’s model. Being a parent is like being an iPhone 6 in the age of the iPhone 7. No wonder Brent and Kendall are angry.
All this is subtext, of course. The plot has to do with a virus (never explained) which causes parents to turn on their kids; they only attack their own kids, not kids in general – so, for instance, Carly’s BFF’s mum looks up from her slaughtered daughter and greets Carly with a friendly “Hey kiddo!”. The film is discreet (I guess it has to be) about showing dead children, only toppling once into outright bad taste. Taylor uses manic style – leaning hard on kitschy 70s indicators like split-screen, lens flares and a soppy song over the opening credits – to keep things light. He also uses flashbacks, though in fact none of the flashbacks are necessary, nor do they add much we don’t already know. Plotting is poor in general, the film running out of ideas, money or both: despite the apocalyptic scenario, most of it takes place in one school, one house and one basement.
Mom and Dad has an audience-demographic problem. It’s actually a film for middle-aged viewers for whom it’ll seem too loud, too tasteless, or just too exhausting; it’s styled for kids, but actually made for their parents. Then again, both sides may recognise themselves in this tense, foolish movie: its violence is cartoonish yet also real, it simmers at the heart of every parent-child relationship. Early on, before the virus hits, little Josh bounces his ball off Daddy’s head; Daddy stiffens, Josh’s eyes go wide, there’s a moment when Daddy seems about to explode – then he smiles, and all is (temporarily) well again. Mom and Dad is patchy, and far too chaotic to be taken seriously. Thank God for that.
DIRECTED BY Brian Taylor
STARRING Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters
US 2017 86 mins