Brad Pitt and parenting in the movies, part 2

I recently posted on THE TREE OF LIFE, the Terrence Malick lush-fest that has been blowing minds – like explosions in space – since its recent release. I wrote about the film and parenting, a subject that comes up infrequently if you Google the two terms together. After a few conversations with friends, I’d like to follow up. And yes, full disclosure, I’m a parent of two boys (7 and 2), and a filmmaker too (SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS), so both are equally relevant. (Did I just equate my love for my children to my love for movies? The parent police should be at my door momentarily.)

The conversations I had with fellow parents involved the question of whether or not Brad Pitt’s “Father” character should be characterized as “abusive.” (People magazine did just so, here. And further searching reveals that many critics describe the character as either “abusive” or “sometimes abusive.”) Perhaps I’m simply in a toddler-infused haze of delirium – one of the people I love most in the world shouts “NO!” at me repeatedly throughout the day when things are not going his way (he’s 2). Even so, I never understood Pitt’s character to be an abusive father. Somewhat flawed? Sure. Domineering? Yes. He’s tortured, personally, and he lets it show in his parenting, something that is, um, very difficult not to do. He yells. (In one scene, he really yells.) He punishes. (My own husband loved the scene where Pitt made his son close the screen door 100 times until he could do it softly.) But an abusive father? In my mind that means consistent physical abuse, of course, or a verbal approach that involves extraordinary, non-stop belittlement. Pitt’s “Father,” on the other hand, repeatedly hugs his boys and is more affectionate than many portrayals of 50s dads. He apologizes to his eldest son. Was the character “of the time?” Yes. I would bet it was more common for men to teach their boys how to hit in the 1950s. He’s sterner and more authoritative than the parenting styles of today, making for a complicated relationship with his sons.

But is it so simple today? Current parenting styles have problems as well: the unbridled permissiveness that produces today’s entitled children who can simply do no wrong. And we don’t really know the aggregate impact of this trend. How will these children feel about their parents come middle age? For permissiveness, check THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, for instance. James Franco’s Will Rodman has imposed some limits with “son,” Caesar the ape, as one might imagine one would have to do with an ape-son, but ultimately heads for big, bad, moral relativity when Caesar (A) severs a neighbor’s digit with his teeth and (B) destroys half the Golden Gate bridge, along with the cars and people on it. “It’s okay, son,” Franco practically says, “I love you – be who you are.” I might rather hang with Pitt’s sons, if given the choice. So, did you find Pitt’s character abusive?

- AH