Tilda Swinton plays the mother of a troubled teen played by Ezra Miller and… (Nicole Rivelli / Oscilloscope…)
Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly fight over how it ought to be done in "Carnage." George Clooney in "The Descendants," Matt Damon in "We Bought a Zoo" and Sandra Bullock in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" are worried about doing it alone. Viola Davis does it for other people in "The Help." Demián Bichir does it as an immigrant in "A Better Life." Nick Nolte is trying to do it over sober in "Warrior." And Tilda Swinton has blood-soaked proof that she has done it all terribly wrong in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
Parenting — specifically parental guilt and anxiety — is the subtext of a surprisingly large number of the year-end and awards-season movies. If a boy without parents — Harry Potter — was 2011's biggest box office draw, films about parents themselves, in states of conflict, befuddlement, loss and awakening, are dominating art houses and critics' lists.
Parents have long intrigued filmmakers and also reflected their eras — in 1962, Alabama attorney Atticus Finch became synonomous with fatherly protection in tumultuous times in "To Kill a Mockingbird"; in 1979, "Kramer vs. Kramer" dramatized a nation's spiking divorce rate; Diane Keaton carried the briefcase for working moms in 1987's "Baby Boom"; and a therapized generation of dads got their moment in "Parenthood" in 1989.
Now come the hyper-self-critical, stressed-out parents. Reflecting and sometimes commenting on a culture of self-conscious child-rearing, many recent films show moms and dads who seem far removed from the assuredness of their cinematic forebears. Imagine if Atticus had read daddy blogs, or if the booze-addled, bickering couples in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" landed their best zingers about playground etiquette and arts education.
"Societally, parenting is shifting, and that's being reflected in the movies," said Dr. Alexandra Barzvi, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and host of the Sirius radio show "About Our Kids." "In the past, people parented based on instincts and how they were raised, but now with technology and the ease of transmittable information, we know so much more about parenting. We do so much more thinking about parenting. You can't turn on a morning show without an expert talking about college anxiety, how to keep your kids busier.... Everyone wants to know how everyone else is doing it."
"It's a scary time to be a parent," said Reilly, a real-life father of two who plays an ineffectual dad in two new films — one oblivious to his son's dangerous detachment in "We Need to Talk About Kevin" and another arguing with his wife and another couple about how to resolve their sons' playground fight in "Carnage." "People are freaking out — What's happening to my quality of life? I have no time to spend with my kids, I can't take care of my kids, I don't have healthcare for my kids.... 'Kevin' might be a horror story for parents, and 'Carnage' a horror story about parents."
"Carnage," Roman Polanski's retelling of Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winning play "God of Carnage," sends up the hyper-involved culture of well-to-do urban parents, as two couples devolve into children themselves while debating their sons' spat.
"The kids come off as the noble ones in 'Carnage,' the ones who are the most clearheaded and honest," Reilly said. "The parents come across pretty hypocritical and pretty cynical. These characters are trying to do something for the kids that the kids should probably be doing for themselves, which is resolve this conflict.... These people see the kids as extensions of themselves... It's almost like keeping up with the Joneses. Instead of who's got the nicer car, it's who's doing better for their kid."
A mother's point of view is historically rarer on film than a father's, though moms are getting more screen time lately, thanks perhaps to the gender of the storytellers. "Carnage" was written by a woman, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" was directed by one, and "The Help" is based on a novel by a female writer. "The Descendants," an adaptation of another female novelist's work, forces its father to take over maternal responsibilities.
"Mothers are more often absent, and fathers are more often inadequate," said Steven Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register and editor of the Christian movie website Decent Films. "When there is a mother she's more often competent, involved, she understands her role better, she relates to the children better. But she's more often dead or gone.... Movies generally reflect a male point of view."