Who's the adult in this picture?

'Freaky Friday' is among 10 movies this year that focus on teenage girls working out relationships with parents.

A dad is reading a magazine in a laundromat, while a polite teenager across the room - a daughter he never knew he had until recently - chats with a sweet old lady about a lottery ticket they found crumpled on the floor. Eventually dad gets into the conversation, telling them how they can cash in the ticket even though it's one digit off the winning number.

It turns out that Dad is a con artist, and his idea of loving parenthood is to teach his duplicitous games to his offspring - who shows surprising aptitude, by the way.

Next month's "Matchstick Men," starring Nicolas Cage and Alison Lohman, is just one of about 10 movies this year that focus on female characters trying to work out their relationship with a parent. Certainly, precocious or misunderstood children have grown up on film for decades - "Freaky Friday" is a remake of a 1976 film, after all, and the con man/young girl duo has been around at least since Ryan and Tatum O'Neal hung their "Paper Moon." If classics like "The Graduate" or "Rebel Without a Cause" were remade today, they could be titled "Dude, Where's My Dad? Or Mom? Or Any Responsible Adult At All?"

But what's notable is both the sheer number of these films, and the fact that all of them focus on teenage girls rather than junior James Deans. The success of everything from small films like "Whale Rider" to the more mainstream "Friday" marks a dramatic shift from Hollywood's perennial fixation on male audiences, especially in the warm-weather season.

These films portray adult-child relationships as more complex than the writers of "Father Knows Best" dared even to suggest. At the multiplex, social trends show up not in "problem pictures" that tackle them head on, but in films that aim for boffo box-office returns by capturing current moods through mixtures of entertainment, escapism, and recognizable situations.

So, as in the real world, most of the young protagonists in these movies live in homes where divorce, remarriage, and other disruptive events have badly skewed the status quo. Undisturbed nuclear families are few and far between.

"What this new basketful of Hollywood movies really suggests about our culture is not that kids and adults understand one another less than ever before," says Murray Pomerance, chair of the sociology department at Ryerson University in Toronto and coeditor of the book "Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: Cinemas of Girlhood." "Rather it's that ... they understand one another more," Professor Pomerance explains. "Kids have more and more responsibility earlier and earlier; adults behave more and more irresponsibly later and later in life."

Take "How to Deal," starring Mandy Moore as Halley Martin, a teenager whose skepticism toward romance keeps her from dating the irresistible guy (Trent Ford). But a millimeter below the surface is a serious subtext: Halley has learned much of her cynicism by watching her mother, father, and sister go through relationships that are superficial at best, misery-inducing at worst. How can adults like these guide a girl to the emotional fulfillment she'd love to have - but fears doesn't exist?

We're meant to smile at "Uptown Girls," but again there's much to be read between the lines. Brittany Murphy plays Molly Gunn, a spoiled but sweet young woman who becomes the nanny of "Ray" Schleine, an equally spoiled but not-so-sweet little girl. As in "How to Deal," the screenplay is engineered so each main character learns valuable life lessons from the other, leading to a feel-good finale.

This doesn't prevent the movie from portraying Ray's wealthy mom as a self-absorbed egomaniac, though, whose benign neglect has encouraged the preteen's personality problems. Nor does the picture whitewash Molly, whose trivial pursuits must undergo serious change before she can become a mentor worth listening to. Once more, the relationship between youth and maturity is seen as complicated and troubling.

And so it goes, through a surprising number of summer releases. "Freaky Friday" lets a psychotherapist mother and navel-pierced teen daughter mysteriously exchange bodies for a day so they can learn more sympathy for one another. "I Capture the Castle" portrays an English adolescent coping with a wildly insecure father and wildly eccentric stepmother in the middle-of-nowhere citadel dad has rented for their home. "Swimming Pool" pits a middle-aged mystery writer against an enigmatic woman half her age in a publisher's countryside chateau.

And coming next month is "Matchstick Men," which supplies a twist on traditional role modeling if ever there was one.

Reflected on a deeper level are current confusions about the boundaries between adolescence and adulthood, which have become blurred by the media's escalating explicitness with regard to sexuality and violence, once considered to be unambiguously adult.

Young viewers of this fare may become prematurely aware of adult drives and desires - a situation that confuses them and poses difficult guidance problems for their parents, who grew up under the sway of different attitudes.

At the same time, grownups on and off the screen seem eager to flee these media-driven phenomena rather than face them squarely. This may explain why the precocious kids of current movies are complemented by adults who behave in immature or downright childish ways: the juvenile nanny in "Uptown Girls," the hippie stepmom in "I Capture the Castle," and the morally stunted dad in "Matchstick Men."

"No one is truly, deeply comfortable with this," Pomerance says. "Kids want their own world, and so do their parents. These films exaggerate the confusions and disconnections to sell the idea of difference to people who aren't really experiencing it. In the 1960s, by contrast, every kid knew he wasn't his parents, and adults knew that only misfits and failures behaved like kids."

And not everyone in the movie world is dodging these issues. "I wanted to help put parents into the mind set of being 13, and help 13-year-olds get into the mind set of being parents, [of understanding] what their struggles are," says Catherine Hardwicke, the director of "Thirteen," which tries to probe adolescent problems in an edgy, dramatic way that echoes the moods of teenage life itself. (See story.)

As she wrote the screenplay with 13-year-old Nikki Reed, who stars in the film, they discussed relevant issues in a way Ms. Hardwicke likens to "cinema-therapy." Their goal was to help parents view adolescence from a new perspective, while letting teenage girls see they are "not the only ones struggling."

Young as she is, Nikki recognizes the challenges faced by family members on both sides of the generation gap. "For parents, there's no right or wrong way," she says. "Parenting is a really hard thing to do.... Kids are different, parents are different. There's no rule book."

Stephanie Cook Broadhurst contributed to this report.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Who's the adult in this picture?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today