The Parent Trap was right about sisters, but wrong about love

The 1998 version of The Parent Trap was the first movie I ever saw that portrayed multiple birth siblings as something other than a practical joke. I’m a triplet, and I’m not identical to my sister (or my brother), but I still appreciated how the movie showed that twins and triplets are not carbon copies of the same person. Annie and Hallie (both played by Lindsay Lohan) have some traits in common, including a wry sense of humor, a talent for poker, and a love for Oreos dipped in peanut butter; but while Annie is prim and proper, a quintessential English rose, Hallie is bold and brash, a true California girl.

Twenty years later, it’s clear that the best part of the movie is the beginning. We get to watch the twins go from camp rivals who play practical jokes on each other to young girls who discover that they’re actually sisters and decide to trade places. Lindsay Lohan has unbeatable chemistry with, er, Lindsay Lohan, and the twins’ banter and blossoming friendship is a sweet portrayal of the affection between sisters who are close in age—before the teen years set in and they become mortal enemies.

But when the focus shifts to adult relationships, things start to make less sense to any adults watching—which I can now say as an adult who has rewatched The Parent Trap.

Another thing I have in common with Annie and Hallie is a set of parents who didn’t have a very happy relationship. While Elizabeth (Natasha Richardson) and Nick (Dennis Quaid) divorced when the twins were babies, if not before the twins were even born, my parents stayed together until I was 21. The problem wasn’t that they argued; the problem was that they never really talked to each other or spent any time together. It made for a tense household, and although the divorce was painful, it was clearly necessary for their future happiness—and for ours. Now when I watch Annie and Hallie scheme to get their estranged parents back together, it hits me with the kind of melancholy that only parent-related issues can.

Nick and Elizabeth’s relationship is more disaster movie than romance.

Here’s a refresher. They met on the Queen Elizabeth II and got married spontaneously, before the ship had even docked. They quickly discovered that they had nothing in common, but not before they’d managed to conceive identical twins. When the girls were born, Elizabeth and Nick decided to each keep one twin, on separate continents, without telling the other that she had a sister. Then, nearly 12 years later, as Nick is on the verge of proposing to another woman, Annie and Hallie reunite the couple. Elizabeth has misgivings right up until Nick kisses her at the end, yet they decide that—despite all the red flags— they are destined to be together. The girls watch on gleefully as their parents kiss, glad that their “trap” has succeeded.

As a kid, all I wanted was for my parents to have that magical moment that would make them fall in love again, forget all of their past tensions, and live happily ever after.

Hallie and Annie are living out every kid’s fantasy: that we can somehow take responsibility for our parents’ happiness and fix things for them. But looking at Nick and Elizabeth as an adult, I realize they’re the ones acting like children.

For starters, they live on opposite sides of the world. As someone who emigrated from London to the U.S. for love, I can tell you that the visa side of it is no rom-com moment. And I’m pretty sure that you can’t run a vineyard in London, and Napa Valley is definitely not known as a fashion capital—so which of these independent people is going to give up their hard-won career? Not to mention, Nick and Elizabeth barely functioned as a couple the first time round (P.S. Disney, a woman throwing a hairdryer at a man counts as domestic violence). Are we to believe that 12 years later, posh, nightgown-wearing Elizabeth is suddenly going to be fine with laid-back Nick? Have they forgotten that now they have about-to-be-teenage daughters who have grown up with very different lifestyles and house rules? None of this suggests an easy domestic life.

Finally, I know we’re supposed to hate Meredith, but she’s not that bad. She tries to take an interest in Hallie (actually Annie) when they first meet, she says she “adores” Nick, and she’s a working woman, so it’s not like she needs his money. Plus, her hat game is STRONG. Instead, let’s look at Nick.

The fact that he’s ready to propose to a much younger woman after only a summer of dating—before she has even had a chance to get to know his daughter—and then instead suddenly chooses to woo his ex-wife all over again screams mid-life crisis. Not true love.

It’s telling, at least to me, that once the movie shifts from the sister storyline to the romance plot, we lose sense of which twin is which. In order to stop their parents from separating, Hallie and Annie refuse to reveal their respective identities, and their hopeless mom and dad can’t figure it out. In many of the last few scenes, the twins are so focused on manipulating their parents to reunite that it no longer matters who is Hallie and who is Annie. They’re willing to sacrifice their individuality if it can keep the family together for just a bit longer.

…Okay, okay, The Parent Trap is just a movie, I know. Specifically, it’s a kids’ movie.

This romance is a childish vision of love and marriage and parenthood. Which is fine when you’re a kid, but when you grow up, it’s less of a fairy tale and more of a disaster waiting to happen. I still love this movie for the depictions of sisterly bonding, for the camp antics, and for Hallie’s California chic outfits. But when I watch it now, I can’t help but think parents don’t belong in a trap—no matter how much we’d like to keep them together.

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