You Don't Need a License to Be a Father: Ron Howard's Parenthood (1989)
I’ve had these moments in my life where people have a certain moment of realization about me when it’s revealed I’m an only child - an expression of understanding that has unlocked a world of insight into who I am and how I act. I had this moment early in my relationship with my wife as well, where she told me she was a middle child, and my voice lifted in a near falsetto of ‘OHHHHHH’, as if our birth orders were a blueprint to our personages. As I’ve gotten older, I find the basic alignment of those expectations to fade away, but I am drawn back time and time again to Ron Howard’s exploration of the Buckman family in Parenthood. It’s like an archaeological site of relationships, from parents to siblings to children and spouses, that helps me learn something new about myself every time I see it.
Parenthood is a slice of life comedy, primarily following Gil Buckman (Steve Martin) as he navigates the demands of work and family. His son has been diagnosed with emotional distress issues, and Gil’s own neurotic behavior makes him reflect on his shortcomings of parenthood. Gils sister, Helen (Dianne Wiest) is in her own moment of crisis - a divorced mother of a teenager and a pre-teen (Martha Plimpton and Joaquin Phoenix), she worries about her children's seemingly destructive behavior, with her daughter dating a ne'er-do-well type (Keanu Reeves) and a son who’s regressing in his relationships. Their sister, Susan (Harley Kozak) is having a moment of transition in her life, as her daughter is dotted over by her loving but clinical husband Nathan (Rick Moranis), who is doing everything he can to get her into an Ivy League college even if she’s only in the early years of school. And the youngest sibling, Larry (Tom Hulce) has recently landed on their parents couch again, in the company of his son Cool and looking for a handout from Frank (Jason Robards), the family patriarch.
The movie has a deep bench of fantastically capable actors looking for moments to shine. While Steve Martin was the biggest star at the time, almost every sibling, spouse and child gets a moment at center stage. Dianne Wiest gained an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress for some fantastic manic comedy that leads to deeply cathartic moments between mother and daughter as they understand each other through the growing process. Perhaps two of the most poignant moments come from actors on different ends of their careers - Jason Robards, entering the ‘aging lion’ part of his career, delivers a pointed moment of revelation to Gil, the truth that there is no victory dance in life, it just goes on and on. And Keanu Reeves, a hotshot upstart, who’s insightful Tod gives Helen the insight that they don’t let everyone drive a car, but they will let ‘any asshole’ become a father.
As a director, Ron Howard, a chameleon of behind-the-camera styles, is in a sweet spot of Jonathan Demme-esque comedy - it’s sweetness with an undercurrent of a bitter bite that comes with life. The film affords some opportunities for stylish flairs, from a drag race, dolly shots, and a particularly clever (if slightly disturbing to the modern eye) sequence where Gil imagines his son Kevin’s two possible tracts in life - one as a scholar who owes it all to his father, and one as a deranged mass shooter who resents all his father made him do. Parenthood is also arguably Howard’s most successful foray into screenwriting, with a story-by credit with screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. This credit has kept Howard with this story over several iterations, exploring it in the 1990 TV series, and the much more well-received and beloved 2010 revival, which ran six seasons. Howards ultimate lesson as a storyteller from Parenthood seems to be ‘know your material and know it’s best possible medium’, which, with the help of his longtime producing partner Brian Gazer, made the show a success.
I’ve seen Parenthood through several sets of eyes in my life; as a child who found the ‘Diarrhea’ song to be the most hilarious thing I’ve ever heard; as a young adult who realized their faults in childhood; as a good and proper 30-something facing the maturity of relationships; and as a widower who has tasted a kind of pain that made every other drama in my life seem trivial. Parenthood is like a family recipe - it’ll mean something different to you as you go through life, and it’s something worth passing on to the ones you love.