Motifs in Cinema 2012: Parents and Children

Once again I’m participating in the Motifs in Cinema blogathon hosted by Andrew over at Encore Entertainment.

Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.

I’ve chosen to write about the parent-child relationship. Since the parent-child relationship is perhaps the most common forms of human interaction, it is logical that these relationships are frequently depicted in cinema. How the parent-child relationship develops and functions within a movie’s world can be at times profound yet also problematic.

Most often, I found the films from 2012 to be using the parent-child relationship as a tool to help the audience develop an emotional connection to the characters. The masterminds behind Les Miserables added an original song “Suddenly” to emphasize Jean Valjean’s new relationship with Cosette. (Was there really a hole in the story without “Suddenly”? I don’t think so.)

Without Pat Sr., Dolores, and Robert DeNiro’s tears in Silver Linings Playbook, Pat Jr.’s struggles lose a sense of urgency. But Silver Linings Playbook is arguably about the importance of finding the value in shared human experiences with strangers, not solely one’s family, when one is most vulnerable.

In Lincoln, the affectionate relationship between President Lincoln and his youngest son Tad serves one key purpose. These scenes are a break from the heavy dialogue and politics that drive the film’s main narrative. They are simple and touching attempts to introduce us to the man behind an infamous leader. Lincoln’s relationship with his son also works to make the aftermath of his assassination more affecting. We know how this story ends but without Tad’s reaction to his father’s death,the true impact of this great man’s death would not be felt.

Behind this curtain is a touching father-son moment! Photo: Empire Online
Behind this curtain is a touching father-son moment. Photo: Empire Online

The parent-child relationship might be the absolute worst aspect about Argo. (You know. Besides the blatant Westernization of history and Ben Affleck’s inability to emote.) Who cares about Tony Mendez and his damn kid? This relationship is a manipulative, creative device intended to make the audience think there were more at stake during the Iranian Hostage situation than just the lives of the hostages. The nuclear American family, the one thing the United States must go to war to protect, was in danger.

It’s a good thing Maya in Zero Dark Thirty didn’t have a family. Otherwise the CIA never would have killed Osama Bin Laden.

What Argo taught me about US Diplomacy: All CIA agents are driven their urge to connect with their estranged wife and son.
What Argo taught me about US Diplomacy: All CIA agents are driven by their urge to connect with their estranged wife and son.

But the films from 2012 that explicitly tackle a parent-child relationship In Brave, the mother-daughter relationship is the driving force behind Merida coming to terms with her place in a traditional (patriarchal) society. (Andrew delves more into the mother-daughter relationship in Brave in his post about parent-child relationships.)

Michael Haneke’s Amour offers the most realistic and painful exploration of parent-child relationships and how aging affects this dynamic. What happens to adult children as their parents become incapable of taking care of themselves? Isabelle Huppert’s Eva exhibits how painful this natural development is for an adult child and how it puts one at odds with their parents. Moreover Eva is a surrogate for the audience who feel utterly helpless watching a woman’s life take its natural course.

amour isabelle huppert

No other 2012 films tackles the complexity of a parent-child relationship more so than Beasts of the Southern Wild. Six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father Wink live in the Bathtub, a community separated from traditional society by a levee.  Life is simple in the Bathtub where residents are deeply connected to nature and to each other. But this community is also definitely independent. One message is constantly repeated to Hushpuppy: “Y’all gotta learn how to survive.” Initially it seems that Hushpuppy’s survival is dependent on her relationship with her father. But Wink is sick; his unnamed illness causes him to disappear for days, leaving Hushpuppy to care for herself. In Wink’s absence, we learn about Hushpuppy’s imagined relationship with her absent mother that helps her mentally survive her father’s abandonment.

Eventually Wink returns just as a hurricane hits the Bathtub. During the hurricane, Wink acts fatherly, securing Hushpuppy with flotation devices and protecting his scared daughter from the storm. After the floodwaters rise, most of the Bathtub’s residents have scattered elsewhere. But not Wink and Hushpuppy. With a select group of survivors, they rebuild their lives and Wink starts giving Hushpuppy important survival tools. How to fish. How to eat. How to be a man.


The conflict between Wink and Hushpuppy emerges when the survivors are forced into a shelter and Wink’s illness becomes more obvious. Once again, Hushpuppy’s worst fear is realized when Wink tries to send her elsewhere. The fact is that Wink would rather send Hushpuppy away than have her witness his death. But all Hushpuppy sees is her father’s abandonment and when they do return to the Bathtub (so Wink can die at home), Hushpuppy goes on a desperate search for her mother. On this journey she meets a woman who may be her mother. Despite her longing for a loving parent, Hushpuppy realizes this woman cannot be a replacement for her father. Hushpuppy’s imagined relationship with her mama enables her accept Wink’s death. In his death, we realize that Wink given her all the necessary tools to survive without him. Without parents, Hushpuppy will be taken in by the members of the community and the Bathtub will continue to thrive, as either a reality or a fantasy.

They gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she live with her daddy in the Bathtub.
They gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she live with her daddy in the Bathtub.

4 thoughts on “Motifs in Cinema 2012: Parents and Children”

  1. Beasts is an excellent choice for this theme, as is Brave. I was upset about the whole parent son relationship in Argo too. Like, what is that about? and i wish we saw more personal relationships in Zero Dark Thirty.

  2. I liked “Suddenly” in LES MIS but what turns it from merely okay to good for me is that towards the end of the film when Valjean disappears Cosette sings that reprise and it works so well, the father/daughter relationship between them opens so much.

    Glad you included BEASTS which just wasn’t fitting into my take on the subject.

    Also, on LINCOLN I know many are weird about Sally in it, but the way the death of her child has tipped her just slightly over the edge works for me in a way it doesn’t seem to work for many.

  3. I love how you ended this with that line from Beasts of the Southern Wild. It fits perfectly. You bring up a very good point with Lincoln too. When I saw the film, I thought Tad’s reaction to Lincoln’s shooting was really bad, but when I think about it after reading this, it made total sense. Great post!

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