A Meditation on Taking My Sons to See Swiss Army Man

I took my 14-year-old twin boys to see Swiss Army Man last night. Maybe you’ve never heard of the movie, but it’s kind of an art film (what designates a thing an art film?) and follows a narrative arc that is very much not found in a traditional Hollywood vehicle. It has Paul Dano (who I love – from Little Miss Sunshine to There Will Be Blood and beyond) and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter, yes, but also a fine actor in his own right – and in this film he plays a freakin’ corpse! How exciting!) as the two leads and it’s about a stranded castaway who saves his own life by utilizing a flatulent corpse as a human multi-tool.

Anyway, I took the boys.

Because Harry Potter. And because farts. And because I’ve paid to see dozens of first run movies, usually animated, that follow the hero’s journey narrative and everyone wins in the end and I’m BORED of it and by god, you’re going to see a mom movie with me! I was so excited to see a story that was brand new, and I was excited to observe the boys’ reactions to doing the same.

Because I am a hope-filled fool.

Because sometimes in wanting a thing bad enough, I can ignore certain warning signs.

We went to The Hollywood Theater, which is an art-house and not a national herd ’em through chain. There was a dust up from the gate because Tolkien, who was already fueled by a doughnut and a large soda, wanted concessions and I said no and wouldn’t relent and he went toe to toe with me in line and I was embarrassed and so became a raging asshole who quietly said mean things to him through gritted teeth as we inched toward the counter and then very nearly left the theater and everyone was looking at us which made me even more out of my head with anger and it was terrible. Finally, I made Tolkien go to the theater alone and find a seat and told him he couldn’t sit with me and Indigo and that I wasn’t leaving because goddammit it was MY movie and I wanted to see it and he could be an asshole by himself somewhere else and I would sit in the asshole-free zone.

Here’s a confession: I’m not a good mom. I say “good” in the way one would describe a “good” CEO or a “good” dentist. Sometimes I nail it. Often I don’t. In some ways it’s harder now that they’re man-sized, testosterone-fueled towers of rage and boob jokes, and in some ways it’s easier because they’re so much more independent, etc. But teenagers man. They should all come with a trigger warning.

So, we go and see the movie and it’s fantastic. It’s weird – super weird. When you’re watching a narrative that doesn’t follow a trajectory you’ve ever seen before, it’s disorienting. Now, this one was well done and visually kind of spectacular, so that helped, but it also tackled some deep existential questions that pop culture doesn’t really go deeply into: suicide, loneliness, sexual confusion, psychosis, using a corpse as a multi-tool, etc. And the end, though unsatisfying (for me) in some ways, didn’t really answer any of the questions it brought it, which is just right. It certainly didn’t tell you what the hell just happened in an overt way. The ending of the film, like life, left you feeling unsure what all it all meant and you were left with complicated and conflicting emotions. Which is to say, I loved it.

But hooboy, not Indigo. Not at all. Even Tolkien was quiet and prickly about answering the question, “Did you like the film?”

We left the theater emotionally exhausted and there was yelling at each other and general discord and it wasn’t awesome. We got home and I pretty much just put myself in time out in my room because I was in full asshole mode. I wanted to be alone with my emotions – big ones – and they wanted to explode theirs all over the walls. The night ended okay with cuddles and apologies. But I wouldn’t say we stuck the landing all that great. And by we, I mean I. Somebody once told me I’m supposed to be the captain of this ship. But there are icebergs, you see.

Anyway. The boys went to their dad’s house for the week the next morning. I took a five-hour nap from 4-9PM because I was more exhausted than I’ve been in…I don’t know. I mean, I literally couldn’t keep my eyes open and slept like the dead. But when I woke up, I was finally, for the first time all day, starting to feel awake. My first thought was, “I need to call the boys and see how their day was.”

Because guilt. And fear. And love, too, of course. Overarching, all-encompassing love.

Tolkien answered the phone and spent 15 minutes chatting with me. There were no hard feelings there. He was already onto his next obsession and was eager to tell me all about it. When that guy is happy, it’s infectious. I love his wild brain so much. Then I talked to Indigo.

I was nervous, most, about talking to Indigo. He was the most affected by not only the movie, but the emotional fallout before and after. He’s very sensitive, struggles with some profound anxiety, and hates interpersonal discord more than anything. But he was in great spirits and also very chatty.

At one point, he said, out of nowhere, “I don’t ever want to see Swiss Army Man again.”

“No?” I asked. “Why not? You seemed to enjoy it while it was on.”

“But it was so confusing,” he said. “I don’t even know what happened. I mean…”

And after he said, “I mean…” he talked for 20 straight minutes about the main character, Hank (played by Dano), and his emotional state of things and then broke down in very clear and logical detail the possible interpretation of what it all meant, analyzing the narrative and metaphors in a way that most first year college students can’t even do, all in an attempt to explain to me that the movie was too confusing to understand and too emotionally upsetting to watch again. But, in the end, he got to the source of his distress and did a brilliant reading of the movie.

I mostly listened and asked a few leading questions, and when he was done, I said, “Wow. That all sounds perfectly plausible. I don’t think I could’ve interpreted it any better. Maybe the movie wasn’t as confusing as you thought?”

And he said, “Hey. Yeah. Maybe.” There was a smile in his voice. Then he had to let me go because The Goosebumps Movie was queued up on Netflix and he was eager to watch it.


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