Writer-director Tom McCarthy gives us stories of the families we choose. In “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” the main characters were loners who found themselves unexpectedly drawn into caring for people who were very far outside their usual circles. In this, McCarthy gives us a man who already has a loving, stable family and a best friend (“The Station Agent’s” Bobby Cannavale) and is under enormous stress trying to take care of everyone. But he, too ends up meeting someone who at first seems a threat, then a burden, and then, somehow, family.
Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a lawyer with a solo practice that is not bringing in the money he needs for repairs at the office and at home. Most of his clients are indigent but Leo, a man in the early stages of dementia (“Rocky’s” Burt Young), has a comfortable bank account. In a guardianship proceeding, Mike impulsively has himself appointed as guardian so that he can get the fee. Then he puts Leo in an assisted living facility, contrary to his assurances at the hearing that he would keep Leo in his own home.
Mike did not know that Leo had any relatives. But a teenage grandson who has never seen Leo turns up. His name is Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer). He has dyed blonde hair and he smokes. His mother, Leo’s daughter, is in rehab and he has come to stay with Leo. Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) reluctantly take him in. Mike coaches the high school wrestling team part-time. Kyle turns out to be an exceptional wrestler. He begins to work out with the team.
There is a wonderful decency, naturalism, and humanity to this story, thanks to a sensitive script and superb performances. Ryan and Giamatti have the rhythms of a long-married couple, with a real sense of established teamwork, and appreciation. Her “what is that?” expression and his “it’s okay and under control” gesture to her are eloquent in conveying their depth of trust and understanding. The look on Mike’s face when he wishes Kyle luck in keeping his secrets reflects more than a decade of seeing her ability to get the truth out of anyone. And yet Mike himself is keeping bigger and bigger secrets from Jackie. He thought it would not hurt anyone. But there really isn’t any such thing as win-win. Someone always pays a price.
Barbara Dee is the author of Trauma Queen, a terrific new book for ages 9-14. It is the smart and very funny story of a 7th grader named Marigold. While most parents are what we might call amateurs in the field of child embarrassment, Marigold’s mother Becca is a professional. She is a “performance artist,” whose job is to do outrageous and provocative things, including one presentation that attacks the mother of Marigold’s (soon to be former) best friend. Ms. Dee answered my questions about the book, how she knew she was funny, and why she likes writing for kids.
Why are all young teens so easily embarrassed by their parents?
Well, I’m no child psychologist, but as a mom of three teenagers I think it’s pretty normal for young teens to separate a little from their parents. Maybe a part of this process involves holding up your parents to incredibly complex rules of behavior—and rolling your eyes.
What was the most embarrassing thing your parents ever did to you?
I’m not haunted by any one excruciating incident. But I do remember cringing at some of their fashion choices—paisley scarves, wide lapels, big jewelry. In Trauma Queen Becca describes being mortified by Gram’s plaid pants, which may have been inspired by—and I’m just guessing here—my own parents’ wardrobe in the Seventies.
How do you think contemporary performance art will be seen 100 years from now?
I wonder! The boundaries between types of media keep changing, so maybe by then all art will be performance art. Or possibly in 100 years art will be accessible only electronically, so Becca’s type of performance art—spontaneous, low-tech, performed in front of a live audience—will seem antique. I hope not. I love going to the theater, because I love that feeling that once the curtain goes up, anything can happen.
Should Becca have refrained from putting on a performance that she knew would hurt her daughter’s friendship with Emma?
Oh, definitely! Becca made a big mistake by putting her self-expression ahead of her daughter’s feelings, and I think she figures that out. But I know how hard it can be sometimes to put your work second to your family’s needs. And of course no mom enjoys being judged by other moms, so I completely understand why Becca felt provoked. Still, she should have considered that her thirteen-year-old daughter had a separate—and valid—perspective.
When did you know you were funny?
My kids are all very funny, and we spend our dinners trying to crack each other up. So I knew I could make them laugh, but of course writing funny is a whole different thing. I wasn’t sure I could do it until I printed out the manuscript of my first book (Just Another Day in My Insanely Real Life), left the room–then listened by the door while they read it out loud and giggled. An amazing moment for me!
What made you decide to bring in two generations of mother-daughter conflict?
Trauma Queen is a kid-centric book, but I didn’t want to write nothing but Oh-my-crazy-mother. I wanted the mom to be as well-rounded a character as the daughter—far from perfect, yes, but also creative, smart, and big-hearted. So I decided to show a bit of Becca’s history, especially what sort of daughter she was herself. I think Gram helps Marigold begin to see her mom as a whole person, and also to understand that we’re all just family.
Will you write more about Marigold?
Hmm, maybe. When I finished writing this book, it was so hard to let go of the characters, so that’s certainly a possibility.
What do you like best about writing for a YA audience?
Actually, most of my readers are tweens, kids who’ve outgrown the Children’s Section of their library but aren’t ready for the edgier stuff in some YA fiction. (These readers are usually ages 9-14.) I love how strongly this audience connects with characters, so I try to write the sort of people they’ll want to hang out with. I’m not interested in creating superhumans coping with dark fantasy worlds; I’m going for the flawed, complex, funny types of characters which kids that age will find in real life.
I also love how a tween audience expects direct contact with authors. For a writer, there’s nothing more precious than reader feedback! Most of the time it’s email–but once in a while a reader sends an actual letter written in purple gel pen. Those are always the best!
Jessica Alba was dressed for her role in Robert Rodriguez’s ultra-violent “Machete” when, on a break from filming, she stopped to change her baby’s diaper. Rodriguez says he saw her performing this most domestic of tasks in her action-movie attire and knew it was time to start up the “Spy Kids” series again, this time with Alba taking her baby with her on a mission.
The first Spy Kids was about Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara), children of super-spies who got caught up in the family business. It was sharp and funny and imaginative and made it clear that the real adventure is being part of a family. It was a rare film for audiences of any age with strong, smart female and Latino characters. And Rodriguez, known for his ultra-violent films for adults (“Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” “Machete”), kept the “Spy Kids” series refreshingly non-violent. If this fourth in the series is not as good as the first, it is better than the unfortunately titled Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. And much, much better than The Smurfs.
Alba plays Marissa Wilson, a spy who goes into labor in the middle of a chase but manages to capture the evil Time Keeper on her way to the delivery room. She quits to be a stay-at-home mom for the baby and her twin step-children, Cecil (Mason Cook) and Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard). Her husband Wilbur (a likable Joel McHale), has a “Spy Hunter” television show but somehow never figured out that his wife was not a decorator.
A year later, the Time Keeper is creating chaos and Marissa, the twins, and the baby are off to save the world and do some family bonding as well. The original spy kids, now grown up, arrive for some bad guy chasing and family conflict resolving as well.
Everyone gets a chance to know each other better, of course, but the film has a bit more substance. Cecil is hearing-impaired and he and everyone around him are completely comfortable with it. It is very rare in movies of any age that we get to see a character with a disability rather than a disability with a character. Cecil is a regular kid who happens to have hearing aids and Cook gives a nice comic snap to his comments. The gadgets are a lot of fun, including a robot dog with more functions than a Swiss Army Knife, hilariously voiced by Ricky Gervais, and “hammer hands” gloves that can punch through walls. Like all parents, Rodriguez is dismayed by the ever-quickening passage of time. So in the midst of the silliness with a “4 dimension” scratch and sniff card to accompany some of the story’s most odoriferous moments, a muddled storyline, and too much potty humor, there is a sweet theme about seizing the moment for what matters most.