Tag Archives: Bad Dads

Book Review: The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

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Rating: A-/ I can’t remember the last time I felt this emotionally drained after reading a book. It’s a tricky business to write a novel in an intentionally childish and grammatically incorrect style so as to capitalize on the narrator’s illiteracy, but I think this book pulled that off wonderfully.  Although that sounds like it would be difficult to read, I found myself getting pulled into the pragmatic and plain-spoken heroine, Mary’s world without too much confusion. Moreover, I fell in love with Mary’s voice and, withholding spoilers, it broke my heart that things didn’t work out better for her than they did. Continue reading Book Review: The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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Rating: B/ Celie isn’t a slave, but she might as well be. At the tender age of fourteen, Celie’s abusive father passes her off to an equally abusive man in an marriage the two have already arranged. Celie’s only joy comes from her younger sister, Nettie, so when Nettie is sent away and becomes a missionary in Africa, Celie is understandably devastated and writes her sister hundreds of letters in order to keep in touch. The Color Purple is written in epistolary format, and the narrative comes either in the form of letters Celie writes to God attempting to reconcile with her horrid living situation or notes that Celie and Nettie write back and forth to each other, attempting to provide comfort in sad and desperate times. Continue reading Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Book Review: Push by Sapphire

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Rating: A-/  There is occasionally something cathartic about reading books that are real downers, if they are well done. A truly bleak book does something that a funny or light book can’t, which is to put the shittiness of the reader’s life into perspective. If nothing else, Push by Sapphire, an excellent book that was also made into an excellent movie called Precious, will make you want to hug your mom and buy her flowers. Whatever issues you might have had with her at the moment, by the end of this book you’ll probably be buying her free passes to the spa so she can treat herself. Continue reading Book Review: Push by Sapphire

American Heart (1992)

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Cinematic lessons on how NOT to parent don’t come much wiser or more dire than the portrayal of Jeff Bridges’ boozy, wildly irresponsible father in “American Heart,” director Martin Bell’s bleak narrative film debut. The deadbeat dad in question is Jack (Jeff Bridges,) ex-convict on parole and absentee father of troubled 14-year-old Nick (Edward Furlong.)

Jack really doesn’t want much to do with his jaded yet impressionable teen son, but Nick butts into Jack’s life after Jack is released from prison, where he has been incarcerated for bank robbing. Jack aspires to make an honest living, but raising Nick  isn’t part of the plan- and Nick soon falls in with a group of disaffected punk kids, including child prostitute Molly (Tracey Kapisky.)

Jack is helpless, hopeless, incompetent at truly being a father but capable of the persistent wish for his son to do better… to not screw his life up as badly as his old man. As Nick sinks deeply into questionable company and petty crime, Jack makes one last effort to be a father not worth being ashamed of.

There’s an admirable amount of development of Jack and Nick’s characters throughout the film. Initially, Jack came of as a pathetic loser (the first thing that occurred to me while watching him- uncharitably- was ‘you can take the trash out of the trailer, but you can’t take the trailer out of the trash’) but you get a sense by a certain point in the movie that he’s still a mess but he’s… well, trying, maybe not always succeeding, but making an actual effort all the same.

In many ways “American Heart” is a doomed (platonic) love story between father and son. Theirs is a complicated, fraught, relationship, but touched by love nonetheless. The romantic relationship between Jack and a woman who wrote to him in prison who he fancies (Lucinda Jenney) is a featured plotline but it seems insignificant compared to the meat and bones of the story- Nick and Jack’s relationship as Jack struggles to make ends meet washing windows in Urban Seattle.

I think this is now my favorite Jeff Bridges role (yes, it even beats out his part in “The Big Lebowski,” an overrated movie if there ever was one.) He is understated and effective in this movie, and Edward Furlong backs him up nicely as his frustrated teenage son. Although “American Heart” is grimy and tragic, it also feels very real to a large extent. It sheds light on a side of life many people experience, and which the comfortably middle class and reasonably functional shudder to think of or even vicariously find fascination in.

If there’s any fault to be found in this movie, it’s in the relentlessly grim depiction of just about everything. But that’s okay, because it works, but moviegoers should know this isn’t a saccharine drama where a father and son bond to a sappy orchestral soundtrack. It’s rough. It’s raw and it stings like a fresh wound. But on the upside, when Nick makes it to adulthood, if he makes it at all, I see a best-selling tell-all memoir in his imminent future. All that childhood pain has to make it to some use, I figure.

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Short Term 12 (2013)

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A foster care center for at risk teens doesn’t seem like a setting for a movie about hope and redemption, but “Short Term 12,” a vividly realized and, above all, spectacularly real independent gem, finds beauty and human decency in unexpected places. The cast is so adept at slipping into these roles the filmmaker has created that they feel more like real people than characters in a movie, and you find yourself aching for their respective happy endings.

Grace (Brie Larson) is a grounded but damaged supervisor at a foster care facility, who is haunted by memories of her sexually abusive father but tries her best to make the kids’ at the homes stays as comfortable as possible. Compassionate but tough-minded, she is shown the beginning of the film guiding a new employee (Rami Malek) on his first day at the center.

Grace is being courted by Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.,) a happy-go-lucky co-worker who wants to help her move past her trauma. Grace soon recognizes a fellow victim of abuse in Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever,) an out-of-control adolescent dumped on the center by her uncaring dad, but must get past the uncaring bureaucracy to help the girl find her voice and testify against her abuser.

Subplots include Marcus (Keith Stanfield,) an urban teenager clinging to the support system of the foster home, and Sammy (Alex Calloway,) who has a penchant for attempting to run like hell from the facility and forcing its employees to chase him across the grounds. These characters are sensitively acted and realistically presented. “Short Term 12” also features a honest, nonexploitive portrayal of the lasting scars that come with surviving an abusive childhood.

The teens in the film are not sentimental or mawkish- they are often defiant, angry, and even violent, but director Destin Cretton shows genuine compassion for their individual dramas. I have a special preference for Marcus- he’s a well-intentioned young man trying to keep his head above water when the system deems him an adult and decides to throw him out of it’s relative comfort.

“Short Term 12” has almost a documentary feel; not a moment is wasted in this beautifully directed and acted independent film, and even a rather reckless act committed by Grace at the end manages not to be entirely out-of-character. It makes you care about its characters, incorporating fantastic performances from each and every cast member. I recommend it for any and all who are interested in the welfare of children, the resilience of  adults, or the inner workings of the human mind.

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Axed (2012)

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As much as I would like to root for the little man, stick it to the Hollywood studios, and support this small-budget indie horror film, I cannot. All I can say is this- good God this movie is horrible. The budget is tiny, which shouldn’t be a problem, but it so much so that it becomes a distraction. The acting is mediocre. The plot is rife with holes. It’s a disaster. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but this movie isn’t really worth watching on streaming for free, let alone paying a rental price.

Middle-aged, venomously mean-spirited businessman Kurt Wendell (Jonathan Hansler) is fired from his job, much to his chagrin. At home, he’s making his family’s lives a living Hell- his long-suffering wife (Andrea Gordon,) who may be getting a little nookie on the side, his weak-willed, latently homosexual son (Christopher Rithin,) and his pouty daughter (Nicola Posener.)

To Kurt, his son is a pussy and his daughter’s a slut, and he detests his kids and his wife in equal measure. But Kurt has a plan- he schemes to take his family to a summer home for one last vacation, kill them, and then himself. The drama unfolds at the isolated house, where Kurt takes it upon himself to end his family’s complaints- once and for all.

Jonathan Hansler plays Kurt with manic chutzpah, but Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” he is not. Gordon comes off best as a wife and mother trapped in a loveless marriage. Rithin and Posener are tragically mediocre as beleaguered kids who are too stupid for their own good.

There’s a lack of logic in the script that becomes increasingly obvious by the 1/3rd point. In one scene, the daughter, Megan, unsuccessfully tries to untie a man her father’s taken captive while Dad’s outside. Earlier, her dad took her cell phone and made it all too obvious he was not going to let her leave alive.

Later, she reveals to her mother that she has a second cellphone, which is later taken from her and smashed by her murderously irate dad. The question I have is, why didn’t she call the police while her father was distracted rather than spending 10+ minutes trying to uselessly untie the prisoners constraints with her ineffectual soft little girly hands?

In another scene, the mother gets her kids in the car and tries to drive away but the car doesn’t start. Okay, we’ll accept the oldest horror cliché in the book, but not this- Mom, in all her infinite wisdom, has not locked the door to the driver’s side, leaving it all too easy for Kurt to pull it open and drag her out. I guess she thought her car was going to zoom off like “Need For Speed” and leave her homicidal hubby in the dust.

Grainy photography, poor effects, gaps in logic- “Axed” has all the telling signs of a first feature. A victim’s black eye looks all too fake, while the blows inflicted on the said prisoner are woefully artificial. Last but not least, we have Kurt himself, who is too vile and reprehensible to be a remotely likable or even empathisable character.

What are we supposed to say about a movie that features as one of it’s final plot points a teenaged girl flashing her bra and panties at her murderous father to distract him from killing her (can we say anything?) I think her exact words were “Come and get it, Daddy.” With a script this sad, I bet the filmmaker wishes he could  miracle himself into a time machine and undo the whole thing. I certainly would!

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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

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Truth is truly stranger than fiction, and Jeanette Walls, the wildly talented author of The Glass Castle‘s childhood being ‘raised’ by nomadic, outrageously negligent parents, was weirder than most. The said parents (if you could call them that, since parenting or even being adults was not their perogitive), Rex and Rose Mary Walls, were an anomaly- self-taught and highly intelligent people who had no concern for their childrens’ welfare and made no effort to make those awkward adolescent and pubescent years any more tolerable. The Glass Castle reminded me of Augusten Burrough’s blackly comic account of familial insanity Running With Scissors, only less sensationalistic.

This memoir will move you, make you angry, and kick your parental instincts into overdrive. Jeanette Walls and her siblings move from place to place, on the run from the ‘FBI’ and ‘the Gestapo’ (i.e. the tax collectors and the authorities.) Jeanette’s mom is an flaky, unstable artist who wants nothing to with her children. Her dad is a big-talking B.S.-er who can weasel himself out of any tough situation, except for the disintegration of his family unit. Together- the Walls children must take care of each other, facing sexual abuse, poverty, bullying, and other hardships.

I respect Jeanette’s unconditional love for her parents, but I really had no sympathy for them, even when they ended up on the streets of New York. The author really is a born storyteller, but there were times I had my doubts that she really remembered the events she was documenting with the lucidity she claimed. Walls gave detailed descriptions of things that she recalled from childhood; sometimes I wondered if she was taking liberties with her material. This isn’t really a criticism- a lot of memoirists do add improbable details- just an observation.

Walls develops her three siblings well so that you almost feel like you knew their childhood selves. Brian was my favorite- he was a tough cookie. It doesn’t take just any seven-year-old to chase a pedophile out of their house with a hatchet. At least one kid was irreparably damaged by the events of their childhood, the rest seemed to make the best of it as well as they could.

The bizarre thing is that the author only records her father hitting her once, so calling the parents ‘abusive’ might seem like a bit of a stretch to people who haven’t read the book. But between the dad’s abuse of the mom and both parties’ total disregard for the safety of their children, in the end, it’s hard to consider the parents anything other than abusive. Some of the aspects of their childhood seem desirable- freedom, being encouraged to read great literature- but others are atrocities that stand up against the hardest childhood memoirs.

I would highly recommend this book because it is beautifully written and has a fascinating story. Some scenes might be triggering to victims of sexual abuse- I’d nearly run out of fingers if I counted how many times the Walls children are mishandled, either by neighborhood kids or family or strange adults, and their parents’ apathy is infuriating. What is best is Jeanette Walls keeps a certain distance from the material and avoids self-pity. With tenderness, wit, and deft touches of dark humor, she tells the story of a childhood that would break the hardest individuals.