Hollywood’s Useless Parent Syndrome


In J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, out in theaters today, strange things start happening in a small Ohio town following a middle-of-the-night train wreck that no one seems to know anything about. Very little about the plot of Super 8 has been released, though certain aspects of the trailer (the train wreck was witnessed by a group of local kids, the strange events seem supernatural) are reminiscent of movies like E.T., wherein the adults are mostly useless and the heroes are children.

Though the “kids save the day” movie had its heyday with many of the children’s movies in the ’80s and ’90s, the Useless Movie Parent spans all genres. Though children’s movies like Peter Pan and Home Alone feature absent parental figures fairly often—and the parents in teen-centric movies like Sixteen Candles and Rebel Without a Cause are usually completely oblivious to the teenage angst which surrounds them—even serious adult fare has its fair share of inept parenting. Just think of Let the Right One In, in which Oskar’s mother doesn’t seem to notice the danger her son is in, courtesy of a gang of local bullies and his new vampire BFF.

With that in mind, MM takes a look back at some of movie history’s prime examples of useless parents.

Peter Pan (1953)
directed by Clyde Geromini, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske

Here’s a tip for all the parents out there: Dogs don’t make the best babysitters. Sure, Nana the St. Bernard cleaned up after Wendy, Michael and John while Mr. and Mrs. Darling were at a swanky party. But parents, if you want to avoid the awkward situation of having your children run off with a strange boy and nearly be killed by pirates, you might want to spring for someone who has the finger power to dial 911 if the kids go missing.

The Goonies (1985) and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)
directed by Richard Donner; directed by Bryan Spicer

The Goonies and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie are similar in that they both involve adults who have to be saved from trouble by their children. In The Goonies, the adults are helpless before real estate tycoon Elgin Perkins, who is hours away from buying their land, bulldozing their homes and beginning construction on a fancy new country club. Mikey’s father does everything he can so that their area of town, called the Goon Docks, can remain standing, but once the victory of Big Business is assured, Mikey (Sean Astin) is told to face the situation responsibly, like an adult. Mikey reacts to the impending end of his childhood by disobeying his mother and going off with his friends, the eponymous Goonies, on one last adventure (“Our parents, they want the best of stuff for us. But right now, they got to do what’s right for them. Because it’s their time. Their time! Up there! Down here, it’s our time. It’s our time down here!”). The Goonies encounter some bank robbers, a skeleton piano and a few million dollars worth of gold and jewels, after which Mikey’s dad jubilantly rips up the real estate contract and refuses to sell his land. It’s a moving testament to the fact that children should just be children, without being forced to grow up too fast, and that the childlike sense of adventure felt by the Goonies can actually be good for the adult world, too.

In Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, Ivan Ooze’s plan for revenge against his arch-enemy Zordon involves cooking up some purple ooze that allows him to control every adult in Angel Grove. Ivan plans to have all the adults jump into a giant pit, thus killing themselves, so it’s a good thing local kid Fred Kelman is friends with the Power Rangers! The Power Rangers lose their powers, regain some new ones, fight Ooze’s Hornitor (no, really) with their own Ninja Falcon Megazord (no, really) and, with a conveniently-located comet and a conveniently-placed knee to Ooze’s crotch, defeat the baddie and free the parents of Angel Grove from Ooze’s spell.

One of these movies is generally regarded as a classic family movie. Guess which one.

Home Alone (1990)
directed by Chris Columbus

Ah, Peter and Kate McCallister, the Dynamic Duo of Useless Movie Parents. There’s nothing to be written on them that you don’t already know: The harried parents accidentally leave their 8-year-old son Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) behind when they and the rest of the family leave for a Christmas vacation in Paris. As if leaving Kevin by himself over Christmas isn’t bad enough, he has to defend his house (and himself) against a couple of bumbling crooks who repeatedly threaten to kill him. Then, in the sequel (Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, 1992), Kevin finds himself in the same situation again, this time in New York City, which is a dangerous place to be stranded even if you’re not 9 years old. Still, Peter and Kate shouldn’t get too much flak for their irresponsible parenting: All the therapy bills they’ll have to pay (both Kevin’s and their own) will probably keep them from taking too many more vacations.

Heathers (1988)
directed by Michael Lehmann

In Heathers, Veronica (Winona Ryder) is friends with the three most popular girls in school. The girls, all named Heather, rule Westerburg High School with an iron fist, tormenting anyone whom they deem inferior and bullying Veronica herself. When Veronica and her boyfriend J.D. (Christian Slater) accidentally kill the head Heather, Veronica writes a fake suicide note and they both get off scott free. Amidst all the chaos that follows—which includes two more murders dressed up as suicides in addition to one actual attempted suicide—Veronica’s Mom and Veronica’s Dad (as they are known in the credits) remain blissfully oblivious to how bad thing are getting at Westerburg. But then, so do all of the adults, including the teachers. Veronica’s response to her father asking why he smokes cigarettes—”Because you’re an idiot”—shows the contempt Veronica has for her parents. Her father’s response—”Oh yeah, that’s it”—shows that her contempt might not be misplaced.

Spirited Away (2001)
directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Things parents do that can mess up their children for life include not attending school plays, not listening when their child complains of being bullied at school, turning a blind eye to underage drinking… oh, and getting turned into pigs. That’s what happens to Chihiro’s parents in Miyazaki’s anime classic after the family wanders into the realm of the sorceress Yubaba. Chihiro has to confront Yubaba (and bathe a Stink God) in order to get her parents back, but after the three have left Yubaba’s magical realm, Chihiro’s parents have no memory of being turned into pigs. Yep, Chihiro risked her life to save her parents from the unlucky fate of being turned into bacon, and they don’t even thank her for it. Childhood—what a bummer!

Brick (2005)
directed by Rian Johnson

Brick, a film noir set in sunny California and featuring a cast of teenagers, is notable for its near-complete lack of adults, and though many of the scenes are set in a high school, none of the students seem to go to class. Brendan’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) investigation into the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) takes him deep into the world of the drug dealer known as The Pin (“He’s supposed to be old, like 26.”). In one scene, just after The Pin’s had Brendan beaten to a pulp, the two sit down at a kitchen table as The Pin’s mother (credited only as “Pin’s Mom”) plays the hospitable host. (“I thought we had orange juice, Brendan, I’m sorry. How ‘bout some Tang? No, I’m sorry, that’s more like soda, isn’t it?… Oh, wait a minute, we have apple juice here if you’d like that. Or we’ve got milk, but you’re having that on your Corn Flakes. . .”) After she finally leaves (“I’m gonna go, uh… do somethin’ in the other room.”), it’s business as usual, complete with threats of violence and discussion about The Pin’s drug empire. Maybe Pin’s Mom should’ve attended a few more PTA meetings.

Did we miss your favorite Useless Movie Parent? Let us know in the comments!

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