The thing about parenting is that we’re doing it wrong. And our parents were no better. Their parents? No going to win any prizes either.
And if even Canadians can’t get it right, Québécois to boot, what prayer do we mere mortals have of not raising screwed-up kids?
“The Guide to the Perfect Family” is a bittersweet comedy about “parenting today,” the endlessly indulgent practices, the utterly ineffectual counter-measures pitched by “the experts” and the bad or at least far from foolproof “rules” and ideas the elders preach and preach and preach.
This French-Canadian film is framed within a private school’s parent-teacher group meeting that turns into a near-wilding. Privileged, hovering, “woke,” and indulgent parents try to one-up each other about what the school isn’t doing, what their little angels need to flourish, and how everything about the school day — from meals and curricula to expectations and “nurturing” — should bend towards coddling each and every one of their “above average” kids.
Martin, played by co-screenwriter Louis Morissette, takes in this, can’t help but notice where his ridiculously indulgent young wife (Catherine Chabot) sits on the spectrum, and all but rolls his eyes. His journey in this story is one of self-awareness. He’s as bad as the rest.
They are raising a five-year-old monster. Mathis (Xavier Lebel) tosses aside meals, throws things at people and talks back, and all his parents do is mollify his latest rage at how the world isn’t catering to his every whim.
Martin’s 16 year-old daughter from an earlier relations, Rose (Emilie Bierre) seems like the normal one, the “good” kid. She’s knuckling down and making 11th grade pay off. She must, “so you don’t end up a cashier at a 7-11” (in French with English subtitles).
There’s a vast chalkboard covered with all the things scheduled in both kids’ lives — hockey and dance and tutoring for her, day care for him, where he’s about to “graduate.”
“The Guide” reminds us that this is a new phenomenon, and that it’s the sort of thing that can’t withstand any sober step-back-and-take-a-look-at-that assessment.
“I just do” what everybody else does, social media mad Marie-Soleil (Chabot) chatters. She does along with the day-care “ceremony” the way Martin and his extended family indulge her need to dress them up for social media cards, showing off their “perfect family.
But at work, Martin sees the fruit of this “every child is special/every kid deserves a trophy” parenting. A new underling, the son of a senior colleague, is a lazy, self-absorbed snowflake, all “I can’t do well under pressure” when the idea that he’ll put in a full day at the office is broached.
“This is a job, not a hobby,” the kid is reminded. “I NEED you” to do the work.
“I’ll think about it,” is all Mr. “I don’t want to end up like my parents,” even if that means quitting and moving back in with his parents.
All this comes to a head when Rose is suspended from school and his kid’s secret, stressed and rebelling by “checking out” life is exposed. Martin and the girl’s professional dancer mother (Isabelle Guérard) have some serious thinking/talking/deciding to do.
“The Guide” is great at showing how widespread this attitude and these behaviors are in the culture, especially in this affluent, white Francophone one. And the script upends the standard expectations set up by all the “What ARE these parents THINKING?”
There is no Madea here to threaten a dope slap or a “RAISE your kids” lecture. Martin’s brother and his wife seem in an indulgence/fad-following (“Mathis and I are both gluten-intolerant.”) contest. But their gruff dad (Gilles Renaud) isn’t much help.
“Kids today have no fear — no fear of their parents, teachers, cops, nothing. FEAR is a good motivator!”
Bierre and Morissette are well-paired, with her playing classic secretive (and then lashing out) teen rebellion and him as your standard issue “distracted” by work and his cell phone dad.
No character quite descends into caricature, and as superficial and predictable as “The Guide” can be, I appreciated the sober, adult tone. None of this gooey, wish-fulfillment fantasy “Parenthood” easy-answers-only, please. These are hard questions, and the quick call for “medication” by some takes as big a hit as “this is how you raise a brat.”
Reading all the latest “You’re screwing your kid up” books, paying lip service to “listening” to your kid and trying to follow mercurial whims of psychotherapy’s “treatments” (suggesting its role in creating Generation Brat) might make you more open to seeing the obvious.
But even putting down the phone, limiting what the boss can demand of you, and paying attention is no guarantee of a happy, well-adjusted and “successful” kid.
The best take-away the film leaves you with is that it doesn’t really “reflect on you,” which is kind of a cop-out. But simply “seeing” that, and starting to “see” the child in her or his own light can’t hurt.
Which is all the Hippocratic Oath of Parenting really demands, isn’t it? “First, do no harm.”
MPA Rating: TV-MA, profanity, discussions of drug abuse
Cast: Louis Morissette, Catherine Chabot, Isabelle Guérard, Xavier Lebel, Gilles Renaud and Emilie Bierre
Credits: Directed by Richard Trogi, script by François Avard, Jean-François Léger and Louis Morissette
Running time: 1:42