What these 2018 Oscar-nominated films can teach us about healthy (and unhealthy) family relationships
This post contains spoilers about Coco, I, Tonya, and Call Me By Your Name.
You know how people get together for the Super Bowl or The Bachelor finale? Well, my friends and I get together for awards show season. We dress up, walk down a literal red carpet that we set up, choose our favorite nominees for the night, fill out our prediction ballots, and sip on champagne as the night rolls on. We do it for every award ceremony, but the Oscars have to be our favorite one to watch. And whenever the nominees are announced, we make it our mission to watch as many Oscar-nominated movies as we can.
Of course, this year was no exception, and I realized that a few of the nominated movies for the 2018 Oscars share a striking similarity: family relationships. Now, as an adolescent psychologist, my viewings might be completely biased given that my line of work has to do with parenting and teenagers (a topic I write about often). But from Lady Bird to I, Tonya, I couldn’t help but notice that many of these year’s nominees share a narrative thread.
During one of my first internships, my mentor told me that in my psychology practice, “You will learn what to do, and what not do, as well.” I feel that the same mindset applies to parenting. Yes, there is an infinite amount of articles and books about what good parenting looks like and what to avoid so you can become a good parent — but there are so many lessons that we can only learn in the moment. Many of this year’s films wonderfully exemplify this philosophy.
Here are a few important things that this year’s Oscar-nominated movies can teach us about family relationships.
Family secrets are more harmful than protective.
Let’s talk about the Best Animated Feature Film nominee Coco — a chimerical animated movie, full of fascinating colors and traditions bursting out of the screen and pulling you deep into the plot and storyline. It follows Miguel, a boy who dreams of becoming a musician but is forbidden to do so because of his family’s history. His family — like many Latin American families — place a lot of weight on traditions and family loyalty. The characters follow along with their family’s implicit (and explicit) terms and conditions, without ever questioning the rules or asking themselves why do they do what they do. Then Miguel, adamant about fulfilling his destiny, begins to ask questions. And like any good Mexican telenovela, drama ensues.
Looking beyond the drama, though, this story shows us that family secrets are toxic, preventing family members from achieving emotional stability. Experts agree that family secrets can potentially destroy relationships, create a false sense of reality, lead to resentment, and negatively affect children’s lives. From infidelity, to histories of drug or alcohol abuse, to domestic violence, to adoptions, to deaths in the family — some secrets should not be kept for the sake of your family’s emotional, mental, and physical health.
In Coco, we see how damaging secrets can be to family dynamics and parent-child relationships. When counseling parents, I always recommend that they try to be as open and honest with their children as possible — while also keeping in mind that there is a time and place for everything. It’s better to be transparent about family history because the chances are that one day — just like Miguel — they will start asking questions that might uncover the truth. Like legendary psychoanalyst, Carl Jung says, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Relationships with our mothers can set the pace for future relationships.
In the psychology world, it has long been known that a mother’s love is crucial for a child’s healthy socioemotional development. Authors like Donald Winnicott and John Bowlby were among the first to point out just how important the mother-child bond is. With years of research to back up their theories, they’ve proven that a good (enough) relationship between a mother and her child has positive effects on the brain and on future adult relationships. So it’s not shocking that, on the flip side, an unhealthy relationship between a primary caregiver and a child could set the foundation for future unhealthy (and potentially toxic) romantic relationships in their adult life.
That brings us to the film I, Tonya. Based on Tonya Harding’s life, the movie explores an unseen part of sports history — Tonya’s side of history, to be precise. As we watch moments from her upbringing and her chaotic relationship with her mother, we can’t help but feel empathy for her. She just wanted to receive love and affection. Instead, she only received criticism and violence (both emotionally and physically); that was her “normal.” So, it’s no surprise that she connected with an abusive man who she relied on so heavily. The odd thing about us as human beings is that we don’t seek out what’s best for us — we seek out what we know. And if Tonya grew up experiencing a toxic relationship with her mom, that’s precisely the type of interactions that she continued to seek.
If you are a parent reading this, please know that your child doesn’t expect you to be perfect, nor should you be perfect — but tell your child that you love them. That you are proud of them. That you believe in their potential. Tell them as constantly and as frequently as possible. If you are the child of a mother who didn’t give you this support, then know that you are good enough. You are worthy of love, and you are worthy of connecting with someone who is kind and loving.
It’s okay to give your children space. Sometimes, less is actually more.
Remember earlier when I said that parenting is about learning what to do and what not to do? Well, we’ve covered a couple of the no-no’s (family secrets and toxic parenting) — but now it’s time to dive into the movie that made me cheer. Call Me By Your Name follows a vulnerable teenager on his way to discovering his own sexuality. It is a movie crafted with such sensitivity and warmth that it’s almost impossible not to shed a few tears — or in my case, a lot of tears.
We follow Elio in 1983, as he spends another summer with his parents. But this time, Oliver — his father’s grad student — joins them, and a romance blossoms between Oliver and Elio, filled with all the ambivalence of teenage love. Discovering one’s sexuality is part of teenage life, which is why I’m sure that Timothée Chalamet’s masterful portrayal of Elio has awarded him critical recognition and nominations. He managed to capture the intricate confusion that teenagers navigate as they experience their first love. And his parents show the utmost respect and sympathy for Elio, regardless of his sexual orientation (as it should be). And that’s the kind of empathy that not many teenagers receive when they choose to disclose this aspect of their lives to their parents.
I was particularly struck by the conversation Elio has with his father (portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg) after his heartbreak. His father knew about the romance, and rather than ask Elio for information he might not want to share, he simply comforted his son. He assured Elio that what he experienced with Oliver is rare and must be cherished. In that moment, he was just a dad talking to his child about his first heartbreak.
The vulnerability written into this scene and performed by the actors exemplifies good parenting at its best. Elio’s father didn’t pressure him to talk and he didn’t judge him for what he chose to share. Instead, the father waited until his son was ready to talk — and he chose to simply listen. The beauty of this moment lies in the simplicity of their interaction.
Parents make mistakes, and that’s okay. It’s an inevitable and important part of the parenting process (and of life, in general). What matters is how parents move forward when they realize that those mistakes have affected or hurt their children. That’s good parenting. Those small steps to become better people allow families to heal and build trust.