Gilbey on Film: meet the step-parents

"Cyrus" shows that fractured families are a rich source for movie makers.

Films are our fairytales, but few of them are as explicit in their allegiance to this form as the kinky comedy Cyrus, which opens on Friday. It belongs to a comparatively recent cinematic sub-genre which takes as its subject the tensions that arise from the fluidity of modern domestic life; let's call it "step-family entertainment".

When this particular fairytale begins, you're not quite sure who the ogre is. The likeliest candidate appears to be John (John C Reilly), who is first seen with pants-down and buttocks out. He even likens himself to Shrek when he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei). Could she be the beautiful princess who falls for the ogre? Well, sort of.

But that ship has sailed. She is in love, unconsummated love, with another ogre -- her obese adult son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who doesn't take kindly to her having male friends, or being away from the house. (That house, on a featureless Los Angeles street, demonstrates the importance of good location scouting: mounted on a hillside, it seems to float above pavement level in what must be a nod to the tower in which Rapunzel is imprisoned.)

On those occasions when Molly sleeps with John at his apartment, she makes sure to steal away in order to get home before Cyrus wakes in the morning and, presumably, something or someone gets turned into a pumpkin. There's another allusion to Cinderella in some important monkey business involving shoes. When John stays over at Molly's house, his trainers are gone in the morning, and he has to pad to work in his stocking feet; their disappearance goes gradually from sticking-point to crisis-point, an escalation not untypical of family life.

What's fascinating about Cyrus is how it shifts cruelty and treachery away from the step-parent (as seen in Snow White or Hansel and Gretel) and onto the potential step-child. The original purpose of the wicked step-mother figure, as anyone who knows their Bruno Bettelheim will recall, was to help the child rationalise and segregate its mother's pleasure-denying or disciplinarian tendencies: by dividing the mother in this way, the child is able to keep intact the mother's loving, nurturing side. With time and emotional maturity, we come to realise that it's all the same: it's all mother. If we don't, we may turn into that victim who clings to the attractive side of his or her partner by insisting that "(s)he only hits me when (s)he is drunk/depressed/skint."

For all the creepy and inappropriate comments made by young Cyrus, perhaps the one which terrifies John the most is when the lad says "It's great to finally have a new Dad", mere hours after their first meeting. Jonah Hill's age and girth makes the mental image conjured by this line even more unsettling.

I think that's part of what lies beneath the dread in Cyrus. Fear of commitment is one thing. But what if someone wants more than anything to commit, as John does, only for there to be another adult who makes that impossible? Like any decent analysis of family, the picture is a study of the forces of control floundering in the face of chaos.

It's worth noting too that Reilly starred in another recent example of step-family entertainment, the curious 2008 comedy Step Brothers, in which he and Will Ferrell played grown-up but infantilised children whose single parents marry, making resentful step-siblings of these middle-aged morons. Like Cyrus, it shows the family unit in free-fall: if you can acquire siblings in your forties (or, in Cyrus, a son who is to all intents and purposes a walking, Godzilla-sized Oedipus complex) then anything might feasibly happen. All bets are off.

My own favourite "step"-movie remains the impossibly tense thriller The Stepfather (the 1987 original, not the recent remake, dummy). It's a highly intelligent study of the fissures caused not just by the jigsaw-puzzle of step-family life, but by the entire concept of family. The unattainable ideal of domestic bliss drives Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) to first insinuate himself with a widow and her children, and then to slaughter them when they fall short of his impossible expectations.

Perhaps the filmmakers' choicest decision was to open with Jerry calmly vacating the scene of one massacre before moving on to the next unsuspecting, fatherless clan. The movie is a nasty, clever little cracker that won't lose its pertinence until we outlaw family life.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times