Sunday, February 7, 2010

Too Young to Be a Dad (Lifetime, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a Lifetime TV-movie I recorded the weekend before last called Too Young to Be a Dad, a pretty quirky film that’s about half typical Lifetime “problem movie” and half something deeper and richer than the norm. The film’s problems start with the dorky title — apparently it was originally shot under the working title A Family’s Decision, which is more ambiguous but at least closer to the final issue of the plot, but Lifetime and its producers evidently decided the more blatant, obvious title was a better attraction for viewers — and continue with the plot structure. Fifteen-year-old Matt Freeman, played by Paul Dano (who was actually 17 when this film was made and six years later would appear in There Will Be Blood in the dual role of minister Eli Sunday and his twin brother Paul), is an academically sensational student who’s just made the honor roll society in his class — the first freshman to do so in the school’s history — when he’s seduced by Francesca Howell (Katie Stewart), whom he’s supposed to be tutoring in math so she can get into a pre-med program in college.

The usual “infallible pregnancy at a single contact” occurs — indeed, when Matt protests that they only did it once and his mom Susan (Kathy Baker, top-billed) says, “It only takes one time,” I couldn’t help but joke, “and in the movies it always happens the first time!” Writer Edithe Swensen and director Éva Gárdos spin off from that basic situation to a whole merry-go-round of family dysfunction: while Matt had always been the perfect little boy, his older sister Alex (Terra Vnesa) had been the family fuck-up, getting lousy grades, taking up with boys and smoking, and also insisting that she wants to go to work and save money for a car instead of going to college immediately on graduation the way mom wants her to. As for dad, Dan Freeman (Bruce Davison) is an executive with a retail chain who’s always traveling around the country to open new stores or something; he’s never around for the kids and, when mom questions him about this, he says he has either to take all those trips or risk losing his job altogether. (Yet another example of how U.S. law virtually demands that people — men and women — relentlessly put their careers ahead of their families, and how the “family values” crowd, obsessed as they are with abortion and homosexuality, is just fine with that and fights against the kinds of parental leave programs European parents have access to in situations like these.)

The Howells, if anything, are even worse than the Freemans; Francesca’s father (Nigel Bennett) is a doctor who works (ironically) at the same hospital where Francesca will have her baby in the closing scenes; he’s willing to fund Francesca’s pre-natal care to the extent his health insurance will cover it but insists that the Freemans come up with the co-pays and deductibles. To do this, Matt willingly accepts banishment to the “alternative school” set up for teenage parents (a rather unctuous school official says that they’ve started sending teen dads as well as teen moms to these schools because they don’t think it fair that the girl should have to give up her academic career while the boy who knocked her up gets off scot-free) despite his mom’s attempt to fight it; he takes a job in a pizza parlor (and gets ordered by his boss to work overtime even though it’s illegal for a boy his age, an interesting precursor of the work-vs.-family demands that have virtually removed his own father from any active participation in his family’s life) and takes on a dedication to paying off his family and covering the bills for Francesca’s care that borders on the masochistic. (Indeed, Dano’s quiet strength in playing these scenes reminded me of Montgomery Clift’s performance in From Here to Eternity, another movie that put its character through such intense, and largely self-inflicted, suffering it took a particularly sensitive actor to play it without making us think the guy was totally crazy.)

The irony of Too Young to Be a Dad is that, for all his alleged unreadiness for fatherhood, Matt is actually approaching the situation far more maturely than any of the grownups in the film (much like James Dean’s character vis-à-vis his parents in Rebel Without a Cause), and the piece builds to a strangely moving climax in which Matt decides against giving up his child for adoption (much to the disgust of Dr. Howell, who not only pushed for adoption but insisted that it be a “closed” one, in which the child’s birth certificate would be reissued in six months naming the adoptive parents as the real ones — closed adoptions are getting less and less fashionable these days, partly because birth parents are demanding more rights and partly because adoptive parents are increasingly concerned about genetic diseases and want access to the birth parents and their DNA profiles and medical histories, and why Swensen didn’t raise open adoption as an option in her script the way the makers of Mom at 16 did is a bit of a mystery) and, with Francesca seemingly an extra in the story even though she is the birth mother, after all, Matt and his parents agree to raise the child (a daughter whom Matt names Genevieve) together. Too Young to Be a Dad isn’t exactly great filmmaking but it is quite a bit less preachy and more moving dramatically than the Lifetime “problem film” norm.