Listen up, ‘rents. Being a father is never easy, but being the father of a teenage girl, and trying to get that one right is a true challenge. Both of these films — two decades apart in production dates and period settings — show fathers who, with the best of intentions, get it all wrong, but they get it wrong in exactly opposite ways.
You can care too little, and you can care too much. When you’re in the middle of things, it’s not always so easy to see which is which. Believe me, as a father of a girl who has just left her teenage years behind, these are matters I’ve thought a little bit about. I keep thinking of the famous Kenny Rogers song (“The Gambler,” written by Don Schlitz) that you gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. Like that’s easy. Still, what we have here to consider are a couple of fathers who don’t know best, not by a long shot…
An Education enjoyed its own fifteen minutes of fame in the year of its release with an Oscar nomination and critical raves over the performance of the young and talented Carey Mulligan. Screenwriter Nick Hornby adapted Lynn Barber’s memoir for Danish director Lone Scherfig. It’s the story of Jenny Mellor (Mulligan) who, in 1961 England, at the age of just 16, gets swept off her feet by David (Peter Sarsgaard) a seducer twice her age. She falls for fast cars and high living over school tests and boys her own age. What’s truly amazing, though, is not the ease with which she gives up her own values to David so quickly, but how her parents also fall for this bounder (well, actually, that’s too kind, he’s a predator). They let him take their daughter and stay out way too late, going to jazz clubs and even Paris — all with a man they simply do not even know. When this weird relationship turns sexual, they still don’t see, particularly her dad Jack (Alfred Molina), and when it’s announced that Jenny is going to marry David, they give their blessing. It’s one bad call after another.
The Defending Champion
Say Anything — Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut — can now be found in a 20th anniversary Blu-ray release, and it holds up because it’s a teen movie that transcends its teen limitations. In this telling, high school Everyboy Lloyd Dobler (John Cusak) blithely pursues the unattainable Diane Court (Ione Sky) in the summer after high school. Lloyd knows he’s out of his league but he can’t help himself from going for his dreams, whether it’s this beautiful valedictorian or a future career as a professional kickboxer, “the sport of the future.” You’d think that Diane’s status as a college-bound babe and brain would be his major stumbling block but it’s her father James (John Mahoney) who Lloyd has to get by first. Dad just doesn’t think Lloyd measures up to his girl, and he is determined, whether she understands or not, to get her off to college without Lloyd as baggage. He doesn’t account for Lloyd’s tenacity, nor his own very real failings. As Diane’s father, Mahoney’s reserve and formality works perfectly — like he’s worked so hard to live up to his daughter’s expectations — and it perfectly sets up a jarring turn in the last third of the film. Say Anything may be the best teen romance film ever.
The young girls in both these films are college bound to prestigious universities in England because of their over-achieving ways in high school. What’s interesting, though, is that Jenny in An Education has a man who’s after her that her dad probably should have gotten a gun and run out of the house when he first showed up, while Diane in Say Anything has a young man after her who dad probably should have welcomed with open arms. Jenny gets the supportive dad when she doesn’t need one, and Diane gets the obstructionist dad when she just needs one who will stand aside and let love take its course.
Both dads in these films are sure they’re doing the right thing. So how could they be so wrong? Because, people, it’s not that easy to see when you’re in the middle of it. That’s why the advice to parents is to risk getting it wrong as long as you are willing to risk getting it right. In Say Anything, Diane’s relationship with her father is something that she’s always treasured, even when it forced her to choose between her parents after their divorce. And that’s one of the stakes in the film. Diane is learning to trust another man besides her father, something that is not easy for her or for her dad. In contrast, in An Education, the relationship between Jenny and her father has never been very deep, and she’s right to feel that he’s oblivious. He’s just skating on the surface with her, living his own life of desperation so deeply, that he’s unable to connect or communicate. Both films, though, are such a cut above what we are often served up, that great lessons are there to be learned in viewing either. But there are no draws in Smackdown, just like there are no tears in baseball.
I guess the moral of these stories is that sometimes you have to be able to stand back and let your little girl become a woman who makes her own decisions, and there are other times when you need to be the adult in the situation, to size it up, and if necessary, throw a block tackle or two to save your daughter from the disaster of a lifetime. An Education is the current indie flavor-of-the-day, but I’m still surprised at the number of people who claim to love it because of the music, the cars, and the costumes but who have failed to really dial in on the core theme that sexual predators can be charming as hell, and your job is to see them even when your kids can’t.
Plus, I have a soft spot in my heart for Say Anything and think that anyone who hasn’t seen it needs to rent it and watch it, and I’ll be damned if you won’t get pumped up when John Cusak holds that ancient boom-box up over his head and blasts out Peter Gabriel’s haunting anthem, “In Your Eyes.” On the matter of the rules for this Smackdown, however, which is parenting, it breaks down like this. There are two parents in An Education and they both missed the threat which was real. They should have shared their own thoughts and fears with each other, but they kept quiet. On the other hand, in Say Anything, Dad was flying solo as a single parent, distracted by his own approaching business endgame, and the worst mistake he made was not seeing how brilliant Lloyd Dobler could be for his little girl who was turning into her own woman. That, at the end of the day, is a mistake that can be fixed. The winner is both a film and also a blow for pro-active parenting. I think that’s the moral of the story anyway. If you have suspicions about who has his eye on your daughter, all cliched comedy aside, say something… hell, “Say Anything.”