In a key scene in Shannon Murphy’s debut feature Babyteeth, beleaguered parents Anna and Henry look on in the backyard of their home, seeing their terminally ill daughter Milla suggestively “play wrestling” with her delinquent and older boyfriend Moses.
“This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,” Anna sighs.
Which begs the question… compared to what? In their circumstances, knowing their only daughter will not live to see adulthood, what is the barometer of “best” and “worst” parenting that she can realistically judge herself and her husband by? Does one even exist for any parent?
According to British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott, the growing intrusiveness and over-idealization of “perfect” parenting and what a mother and father “should” do to maximize the development of their children was becoming a counter-productive force in raising the next generation, cultivating unnecessary anxieties and expectations in both parents and children.
To counteract this, Winnicott outlined the concept of what he called the “Good Enough Parent” — one who understands that no one is perfect and attempts to always have the “right” answers or to expect the “right” behavior from their children is not a reasonable expectation, and foments resentment and breakdowns in relationships. Rather than approaching child-rearing from a position of authority, it is more helpful for parents to seek to understand their child’s point of view and make empathy a central part of their parenting approach.
This approach to parenting ostensibly fosters healthier development as children understand the complexities and disappointments of eventual adulthood, but in Babyteeth, that approach to parenting is complicated significantly by the fact that “eventual adulthood” will never happen with Milla. Veteran Australian actors Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn portray this struggle to be “good enough” parents throughout this fraught romance in beautiful performances that both should be remembered by Academy voters by the end of the year.
Now, I’m not here to judge the parenting of two fictional characters, nor am I going to use this film to determine which of the oft-debated “Parenting Styles” are best for kids in the 21st century. I have no children of my own and cannot speak from any personal experience on why Anna and Henry make their decisions with Milla navigating her adolescence. What I find more productive is seeing how they see themselves as parents throughout the most harrowing circumstance a parent could possibly face, and how society’s expectations of what a “good parent” is weighs on them emotionally and psychologically.
A “good parent” has been defined all sorts of ways, often conflicting and heavily dependent on cultural norms over personal beliefs and values. You’ve got “Tiger Parenting” and “Free-Range Parenting” and the “Dutch Method” and so on. But how many of these methods produce the kind of predictable, verifiable and repeatable results that methods, by definition, depend on to be scientifically valid? And since all of these parenting methods all promote the exact same thing – producing successful, self-reliant adults – what good are any of these techniques and parenting styles to parents whose child will not reach adulthood?
I was no fan of The Fault in Our Stars, but one of its few positives was Laura Dern’s aggressively cheerful portrayal of Hazel’s mother, her forced smile and sunny disposition hiding a palpable terror of any day possibly being her daughter’s last. When your child’s life is guaranteed to be cut short, and won’t experience life past high school, having children of their own, and making it to old age, what do you prioritize as their parent? What do you do to ensure they have a full, happy life despite their illness?
I can’t imagine how the weight of that question would affect me. I see people in my day-to-day life who can barely keep it together with their completely normal, well-adjusted children in safe, stable environments; imagine wondering if your son or daughter will be able to experience their first kiss before succumbing to a malignant tumor.
With that kind of dark cloud hanging over their every interaction, it makes sense that Henry and Anna tolerate Moses, despite being at first glance every parent’s nightmare boyfriend. And I don’t mean a typical James Dean “bad boy” — he really is just the worst. But when your little girl may never experience another romance again, it makes sense that they begrudgingly welcome him into their home and let him take her out late at night even after he tries robbing Anna at knifepoint. Even before he shows up to complicate their efforts to raise Milla responsibly, Anna self-medicates and Henry wrestles with infidelity and emotionally shutting down from the stress.
And yet… despite these mistakes, these outbursts, this acceptance of a young man who, under any other circumstance, would be a terrible influence on a young woman and set the most self-destructive expectations of future relationships for the rest of their lives, she is happy. And with everything else bearing down on them so aggressively they feel unimaginable, that is a happiness they have no choice but to treasure. Making the best of this situation is all they can do.
MILD SPOILERS Anna’s realization of how her daughter spent her final hours, and who she spent it with, fills her with grief and rage. She is upset because that’s not how it was “supposed” to end for her. But as a butterfly can’t control how its wings power the hurricane raging on the other side of the world, a parent cannot control how their children feel the joys and pain of life. They can only do their best to give them the chance to make those experiences of growing up as fulfilling as possible. As it turns out, being “good enough” was more than enough for their daughter, and their struggle to accept this should serve as a lesson for all of us just doing our best.
But seriously, Academy voters and critics groups, please consider Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn in what is going to be a very weird Oscar season. They’re both just… so deserving of some recognition here.