Let’s face it: we live in a culture of child-worship and parenting competition has gotten way out of hand. Who can afford to stay home with their kids full-time? Who has the most original baby name? Who can raft the most exquisite cookies and cupcakes for birthdays/major holidays/every day in between? There’s vacations, teething, potty-training, storytime and much, much more – so much MAGIC to be had on a daily basis! This culture tells us that every girl is a fairy princess, and every boy is a king. There’s also an unspoken, glaring expectation that every aspect of your child’s life must occur without an utterance of stress or protest from the mother.
Which makes The Babadook that much more damning of this culture, and far more progressive in breaking down the growing taboo that mothers must be perfect and find no aspect of parenthood daunting.
Brought to us by Jennifer Kent, the movie chronicles the life of a harried, widowed mother named Amelia and her 6-year-old son, Samuel. Amelia still grieves for Samuel’s father, who died in an accident en route to the hospital when Samuel was born. Samuel, for his part, does not sleep well, clings bodily to an extreme, has an overactive imagination, and is prone to outbursts. Thanks to a mysterious book that shows up on Samuel’s bookshelf, a creature seemingly begins to worm its way into their lives, begging the question: is there something out to get Amelia and Samuel, or are we watching a stressed mother have a psychotic breakdown?
Kent, in an interview with Ryan Lambie of Den of Geek, explains that, “I was really wanting to explore parenting from a very real perspective. Now, I’m not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women. To the point where I tried to look for research, and I found it very hard to find anything on the subject.”
Motherhood is indeed less than perfect for Amelia. Samuel is, in a word, exhausting. Within the first five minutes of the film, we watch as Samuel hangs on his mother, grinds his teeth, and grabs at her neck while she tries to fall asleep, eventually resulting in Amelia moving him and scooting away on the bed in a bid for relief. Within the film next five minutes, Samuel creates a monster-fighting weapon, attempts to do a magic tricks while getting ready for school, suffocates his mother with affection, gets pulled from school due to his monster-fighting contraption, yells incessantly for his mother’s attention on a playground, hurts himself, screams all the way home, and then insists on a monster-checking ritual before bed. Tired yet? Yep, so’s the depressed Amelia, who can’t seem to get any sleep or even a moment alone to masturbate.
|The picture of familial happiness.|
This isn’t to say that Samuel is a bad kid. Kent makes a point to show how he desperately craves his mother’s affection. He showers her with hugs and wants to be close to her all the time. He likes magic. He’s nice to the elderly woman next door. He’s painfully honest. He expresses concern about something bad happening to his mother, and warns others about monsters that might be lurking – just in case they want to arm themselves. He builds traps in an effort to defend both himself and his mother. As my husband pointed out, “Sam’s not a bad kid. He’s just wired differently.” Sam actually reminds me of one of my children, who has since grown out of an Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) diagnosis and into one of ADHD and OCD. My heart breaks for Sam every time I watch this movie because I speak that language. I’ve heard the imaginative mental leaps and had to teach someone a socially acceptable way to express themselves. The world is not kind to people like that because they simply can’t see the way that an imaginative child does. The child has trouble differentiating between reality and make-believe, and sometimes will physically react to a monster that’s not there. I feel for Sam; I really do.
However, that knowledge and empathy doesn’t make Samuel any less exhausting, and Amelia needs a break. The problem is that she doesn’t know how to explicitly ask for one. When given the opportunity to leave work early, Amelia takes a blessed short time to wander a local mall, have an ice cream and sit down for a minute without someone screaming at her. She doesn’t ask for this time; it’s given to her by work. Amelia has trouble acknowledging to others that her relationship with her child is problematic. She lies about sleeping through her alarm clock because she’s so exhausted, and she does not readily tell others that her son has been pulled from school due to behavioral problems. After all, the perception is that if she was a good mother, Samuel would not act this way, and things would be under control. It’s her job to rein him in. Amelia – grieving, stressed, patient Ameila, the mother of a child that needs more attention that the average kid – needs this moment to herself more than anyone. She can’t ask for it on her own because her son really has trouble fitting in. This is apparent when when she checks her phone, sees 10 missed calls from her sister Claire and arrives to get her son to a flurry of angry confrontations.
Ah, Claire. There are various theories about the true monster of The Babadook. Some say it’s grief. Others say it’s your own dark side. I say that the movie exposes something much more sinister: the unfeeling, unwilling, unhelpful bystander that judges the struggling mother without really doing anything to help relieve the burden. Claire is rude, judgmental and far more aloof than Amelia. One of the standout scenes from the movie comes when Amelia lashes out at a group of privileged mothers at her niece’s birthday party. In a brief moment of encouragement, Claire tells Amelia of writing, “You just have to get back into it.” However, there’s no offer of Claire (or anyone else present) to help her in this endeavor. Think about that for a moment: someone encourages you to get back on your feet, then fails to offer any plausible help to achieve that goal. No one in that group offers to babysit. No one tells Amelia of any services that could help a struggling widow with a son that has more needs than most kids. They make odd small talk about charity work and not having the time to go to the gym. They stare when Amelia snaps, “You must have so much to talk about with those disadvantaged women.” Instead of confronting the situation, the group stares without saying anything. Suddenly, Amelia is the outsider because she had the chutzpah to call out what most people would see as crappy behavior. Really, though, should that be a shun-worthy action? Kent makes it clear in her tone that we should greatly dislike Claire and her cronies. The camera shot is slightly upwards, from Amelia’s chair-bound perspective while the rest of the group is standing. The makeup of the women is ashy at best, suggesting a type of illness to them. Thanks to Kent’s delivery of the scenario, we don’t feel for this group. We can read their shock, but in no way do we want one of them to get an apology from Amelia. The audience dislikes these women for being unfeeling and out of touch. Every person I’ve spoken to cites this moment as a point where they wished they could high-five a movie character. We’re angry for the hypocrisy of those that won’t offer to help.
|Still hate ya, sis.|
This attitude trickles down to the children, with the same results. Claire’s daughter, Ruby, tells Samuel that she overheard her mother saying that she won’t go to his house because it’s too depressing as Claire and Amelia argue about the snapish incident. While Ruby berates Samuel for being unlikable – going so far as to say that his father died so he wouldn’t have to be near him – Claire is coldly telling Amelia to move on with her life after being widowed, that she hates her nephew and suspects his mother does as well. It turns into a parallel battle of Claire/Ruby versus Amelia/Samuel, with Ruby echoing each sentiment her mother has expressed, only much more vicious in her sneering tone. That Kent presents this battle occurring simultaneously is no accident: it demonstrates the impact of the mother’s words and attitude on the relationship of the children. Unfortunately, things like this happen in real life all the time. Kent presents it in a manner that builds to discomfort because we know that Amelia is not able to fully fight back against her sister. Watching Amelia argue with Claire, we know that while she had a brief moment of strength to fight back against the crowd, we know that Claire is entirely too dominant for Amelia to face alone. Samuel, however, does not experience this issue, and literally pushes back against Ruby saying something so damaging and nasty. As an audience, we get the satisfaction of seeing a hateful child get pushed out of a tree house, but we don’t get to see the same thing happen to Claire. Amelia does not have a support system; Claire is it. She’s forced to call and try to make amends because that’s all she has. We see Amelia rejected by her sister for a final time before all hell breaks loose for the rest of the film.
When all hell does break loose, Amelia airs her grievances in the most destructive way possible. She vents her frustration at losing her husband, admitting that she’d rather have her beloved husband than the child that exhausts her, the boy with whom she can’t connect. She puts her son on harsh medication so that he will sleep and give her some much-needed rest. She chokes her dog for getting in her way. She cuts the phone lines. She is absolutely terrifying. The Babadook inside of her unleashes every last thing she’s wanted to say but has held back. This spectacle reminded me of a person who lets loose a tirade after a tiny problem pops up. Amelia has every right to be angry: her husband is dead, she’s a struggling single parent, her sister is a judgmental she-beast, her son doesn’t fit the mold of acceptable behavior, and she has no one to aid her. That she’s so patient and finally loses it doesn’t speak to her weakness; it speaks to the lack of support she gets. And there is the rub: socially, there is a stigma that women can’t vent frustration with their identities as mothers. There’s an unspoken rule that you knew what you were getting into and that you can’t complain. In essence, the lack of complaint, the lack of assistance and the expectation of how Samuel should behave are all indicative of this notion that mothers must not only quietly accept every last negative point of parenthood, but that it’s somehow wrong to even feel it. The resulting internalized bile becomes a literal Babadook.
Once she lets it go, once the destructive raging is gone and the life of her son hangs in the balance, is she able to heal. Amelia confronts and chains her Babadook, offering it worms and visiting it. Consequently, Samuel’s behavior is seen as a reflection of the perception Amelia’s parenting; the moment that they connect, he’s much more manageable. Once Amelia admits her frustrations, has her breakdown, and uses the love of her child and the love he gives her, she is able to defeat the Babadook. Once she admits her sadness and anger, she’s able to move forward. Amelia shows us the importance of acknowledging how you feel, what you’re facing and the way that life can continue when you admit that you have a dark side. We’re proud and we’re happy for her at the end of the film. Jennifer Kent set out to make a movie about two characters that dare to be real in their experiences of the parent/child relationship. She succeeded. The Babadook ultimately reminds us that we can’t all have a life jam-packed with fairy-princess parties, trips to Disneyland and immaculately-behaved children. We don’t have to smile through every second of life in a bid to craft a happy world around a child. Sometimes, there are monsters that have nothing to do with being a bad mother; sometimes, life is just monstrous, and it’s okay to say that out loud.