Joe Swanberg has directed many acclaimed feature films and web shows, including Hannah Takes The Stairs, Alexander the Last, Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas and the IFC.com series Young American Bodies. He also co-directed and acted in the breakout horror film V/H/S. His films have premiered at Sundance, Berlin and SXSW and regularly appear on TV and in film festivals and theaters around the world.
One of the constantly evolving challenges of being a parent is figuring out how to entertain your kid without driving yourself crazy. Doing things together outside is the clear winner when it comes to mutual fun and engagement, but I love movies and so does my son Jude, so that is commonly something we’re both in the mood for. I’m usually willing to bite the bullet and take him to whatever the new kids’ movie is, because even if I don’t like the film itself I can enjoy the experience through his eyes. But my wife Kris and I got very excited when we heard that Miguel Arteta made a family film, an adaptation of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, because we hoped that finally all three of us might like a movie the same amount.
And I’m happy to report that we did! The movie is funny and charming, with uniformly lovable performances, and Arteta’s gentle direction always errs on the side of understated realism, even when the characters are placed in over-the-top situations. Similar to the way Arteta got high school right in his work on Freaks and Geeks, he gets family life right in this film, crafting scenes that feel spontaneous and comfortable.
Ed Oxenbould, the young actor who plays Alexander, does fantastic work here, but Jennifer Garner is the real standout for me. She’s funny, physical, maternal and wild, owning every scene she’s in. She does a very nice job conveying her desire to have a career and be available for her children, showing constant distraction in her eyes, as though her brain is always split between the two worlds. It’s a familiar look around our house, as Kris and I both trade off working and taking care of Jude. Steve Carrell is also very good as a default stay-at-home parent, relishing the opportunity to spend so much quality time with his youngest child while longing to be back in a challenging and exciting workplace environment.
Jude is a month shy of four years old, and this was his first live-action movie, so Kris and I weren’t sure how it would go. He seemed more interested in his M&Ms and popcorn than the movie, occasionally laughing, but mostly munching, so I was surprised when the film ended and unprovoked he declared, “His worst day was his best day!” He may have been parroting the final voice-over, but it’s proof that he was paying more attention than I’d assumed.
And what exactly was entering his little sponge brain? Well, I’m again happy to report that whatever Jude did absorb from the movie was loving and progressive. He saw a family that cared about and for each other. He saw a mother and father that shared responsibilities at home and were both encouraging of each other’s professional pursuits. He saw siblings who had independent interests and were respectful of each other. And he saw that failure is OK, and often comes with a silver lining. When I asked him what his favorite part was, he said, “When the baby pee-peed on the ground,” so his three-year-old sense of humor is still very much in the toilet, but it’s possible I was laughing loudest during that scene as well.
The family film is not a genre I ever thought much about. There was a period of time long before I was born when every film Hollywood put out was a family film. All of the great directors were engaged in making entertainment that people of all ages could enjoy together. But things loosened up in the ’60s and it’s no surprise that the most talented filmmakers took advantage of the new freedom and started making subtle, complicated films for adults.
This unfortunately left much of the family genre in the hands of hacks, and by the time I started watching films, only Spielberg and a few other masters were making live-action PG-rated movies. Disney and Pixar still make great films for families, but they are almost always animated, and every once in a while we get a masterpiece like Jon Favreau’s Elf, but around this time of year the best films are almost all R-rated dramas tackling heavy subject matter.
It’s encouraging that a great director like Arteta would use his talents to make a family film. And I didn’t get any sense that the subject matter was limiting to his vision. I would love for my son to grow up with the option of watching smart, nuanced filmmaking that is also age appropriate, rather than having to wait until he’s a teenager to start exposing him to “good” movies, so I’m hoping other filmmakers choose to dabble in the genre every once in a while. Having only made R-rated films myself, I understand the draw of adult subject matter, but kids are people too, and if we can turn them into sophisticated viewers while they’re young, I believe they’re more likely to choose sophisticated movies as they get older, even if they still love a good pee-pee joke.