6 Movies That Make Me Cry Now Thanks to My Stupid Kids

One of the many ways becoming a parent changes you is that it loads extra capacity magazines into your tear ducts and prods you to shoot at anything that moves.

SING movie still

Long ago, when my father had just remarried, he and my stepmom decided to drag their newly blended family on a long road trip. One night, as we rolled through the darkness, my stepmom was sitting in the middle row of the minivan, watching Field of Dreams on a portable TV/VCR combo we’d brought along. I was sitting shotgun. My dad nudged me and gestured rearward. I glanced back at my stepmom to see the blue light of the television reflected in her face, shining with tears. What the hell, I thought. It’s just a dumb movie.

Now that I can’t think of the line, “Wanna have a catch?” without getting a lump in my throat I feel her pain. One of the many ways becoming a parent changes you is that it loads extra capacity magazines into your tear ducts and prods you to shoot at anything that moves. Dappled sun on the water? Better start crying. Gap-toothed grin from your oldest kid? That’s a gusher. Perfect performance at the school play? Drink some water buddy, you’re gonna get dehydrated.

Movies are especially dangerous, as they mainline emotions directly into your psyche via your two strongest senses. Four, if you count “hope” and “regret.” Allow me to share six movies that leave me helpless.

Sing

Pre-fatherhood: Singing cartoon animals are great and all, but I wonder what’s happening on Twitter?

Post-fatherhood: A freight-train tour-de-force of catchy tunes, belted out by dreamers who won’t be denied! I wanna cuddle the shit out of that gorilla!

When the tears begin:

This is Johnny. All he wants to do is sing. But his dad runs a gang of robbers, and he needs Johnny to be the getaway driver. In this scene, Johnny’s visiting his dad in prison. He got arrested after a heist because Johnny never showed. He was at a rehearsal instead. Johnny has just told his dad about his true heart’s desire, and his dad has responded, “How did I end up with a son like you?” That’s the line that face is reacting to. Look at that face. I’m super impressed the animators could render it, blurry as their vision must have been. I first saw this film in the theater — family movie day! I covered my sobs by shoving handfuls of popcorn down my throat. It was extra salty. The kicker is, my boy loves Johnny’s signature song, “I’m Still Standing,” and demands to hear it all the time. It’s a melodic dagger to the heart. I’ll never stop you from singing, baby.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Pre-fatherhood: The platonic ideal of a buddy comedy. Hilarious and quotable — “Her first baby come out sideways.” “Those aren’t pillows!” — but too bad Steve Martin’s character is so twisted up about getting home to see his family. He should relax.

Post-fatherhood: I would walk through fire to see those little cherub faces. Steve Martin should have maxed out his credit cards on a long-distance limo ride. Why is John Candy so relaxed?

When the tears begin:

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

John and Steve have just parted ways, awkwardly, as all men must at the time of goodbye. They’ve shared a bed, a few bottles, many harsh words and not a few laughs. As Steve rides the train, bound for his wife and kids, he realizes something isn’t right about his new pal. He plays a hunch and returns to the station. This is what he sees. John Candy, sitting alone.

Oh, man. Cuddly, happy, devil-may-care John Candy. Solemn and quiet, small somehow in a big room. We’ve suspected his life is a little sadder than he’s let on, but this moment is so nakedly revealing that I can’t help but start blubbering. Partly, it’s that the film becomes suddenly serious after non-stop slapstick. But mostly it’s that we’re seeing a grown man unmoored by the death of his wife. We’re seeing ourselves, dudes, lost in the wide-open lonely without the people whose love keeps us tethered. “To the wives!”

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Pre-fatherhood: Weirdly creepy morality play, chock full of trippy graphics and annoying brats. Charlie Bucket’s grandparents are lazy, and Mr. Wonka probably has a closet full of Buffalo Bill suits.

Post-fatherhood: Still a weirdly creepy morality play, but at least the good guy wins. If the story of Job ended with the acquiring of a magical chocolate factory, this would be that story.

When the tears begin:

willy wonka movie scene

There’s Charlie Bucket. The winner. The last man standing, standing there in his idiotic turtleneck, pulled high up to his shabby haircut. Charlie, desperately poor, bastion of misery, beacon of hope. Charlie, for whom a Wonka Bar is not simply a Wonka Bar, even when it merely contains chocolate — even then, it is a brief respite from the unceasing hard luck of life. Charlie has just learned that he didn’t win, in fact. That he won’t receive a lifetime supply of chocolate because he and Grandpa Joe fell to temptation and fucked up the fizzie lifting drink chamber.

Grieving but spiteless, Charlie returns a prototype of the Everlasting Gobstopper that he had pocketed to give to Mr. Wonka’s archenemy. Then, he turns to go.

All at once, Mr. Wonka shouts, “Charlie!” and this is the image we see in response. One last shred of hope remains. You can see it in the angle of his eyebrows, and the weight on his chin. And hope is rewarded! Charlie has passed the test and won the day and shall live hereafter in a world of pure imagination! On behalf of all poor kids everywhere, Charlie Bucket, I say, well done sir! Well (sniff) done! 

Wall-E

Pre-fatherhood: What a cute little robot, searching for curiosities on a lifeless planet. Too bad he triggered the return of all those people. They’re just going to screw things up again.

Post-fatherhood: All onscreen romance should be depicted exclusively by robots, specifically these two gallant robots, whose souls have achieved a higher plane of consciousness than anyone besides the Dalai Lama.

When the tears begin:

wall-e movie still

That’s Eve’s hand, reaching out to Wall-E. He has laid his body down to deliver the proof of life to a shipful of humans who have never known their home planet. He has laid his body down for Eve. She, sleek and quick. He hunched, rusty and puttering. Eve has whisked Wall-E back to his hovel on Earth, to reanimate him with spare parts. He powers up, looks at her. She reaches out her hand. In half a second, he will turn abruptly and trundle away from her into the wasteland, ready to return to work. The body saved, the soul destroyed. It is more than I can bear. The erasure of his Wall-E-ness. Reach out your grubby hand, you beautiful ugly bastard!

Thankfully, Eve does not give up. She persists. At last, a spark of love jumps from her to him, the Wall-E we know returns, and now we’re all crying from delirious happy relief. So shines a good deed in a weary world.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Pre-fatherhood: What a load of moralistic, boring claptrap. Goody-two-shoes George Bailey ought to learn how to have fun. Hop on a boat, see the world and have a great trip! Let someone else worry about that broken down building and loan.

Post-fatherhood: George Bailey is my own best self. Bound by obligation and responsibility to his family and the people of his hometown. He only wants to help others, and his life’s work is nearly undone by random chance. Poor ol’ George can’t catch a break!

When the tears begin: 

It’s a Wonderful Life movie still

It’s the end of the film. George’s guardian angel has stoked his ego by revealing how dreary everyone’s lives would be without him. Given a second chance, he runs home to his family. While George has been having a pity party, his wife Mary has been hard at work, asking the townspeople to donate money to save the building and loan. At the moment above, the whole town is crammed into their living room, and everyone’s pitching cash into the pot. George is holding his youngest daughter. Ain’t she cute? But he’s looking past her to his wife Mary. They, and everyone else, have just heard a telegram read aloud. An old friend, Sam Wainwright, has offered to loan George $25,000. Sam, who was there when George pulled his little brother out of the frozen creek, Sam who was sweet on Mary even as she pined for George. Sam, who nevertheless invited George to join him in the lucrative field of plastics. Sam, who escaped Bedford Falls to successfully seek his fortune in the wide world. The Bailey building and loan is saved. George is saved.

All of that passes between George and Mary in the look above. No one in the room notices, but we do, and I begin to weep helplessly, ramping up into uncontrollable sobbing as George’s little brother, now a war hero, makes a triumphant appearance. Just shut it all the fuck down once Auld Lang Syne cues up. I’m done.

Tree of Life

Pre-fatherhood: I don’t know what the fuck is happening for two hours and twenty minutes, but I do know Brad Pitt’s character is an asshole.

Post-fatherhood: A masterful, impressionistic meditation on the eternal struggle between loving grace and brutal nature. A reverent, cinematic prayer to the creator of everyone and everything. Never has a movie more perfectly captured the flawed devotion of parenthood. A triumph!

When the tears begin:

tree of life movie scene

 The family in this film stands in for all of humanity. Mom prepares her children for the Godworld. Dad prepares his children for the real world. She glows with unconditional love. Joy flows from her hands. His affection is transactional — learn my lessons, practice what I teach, obey my command — fashioned to build will, strength. His hands are instruments of fear.

“Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me,” says their oldest boy. That’s him above. Dad has just berated him over a poor job of cutting the grass, pointing out each uneven patch. The boy takes this shaming silently, until he can’t take anymore. He throws his arms around his father. Grace. Love flows through him, desperate for Wall-E’s animating spark.

Watching this, I am the man and the boy at one time, grace instinctual, natured instructed, seeing my own young, stumbling wonderment doubled over the careful, rigid armor attached year by year, the cladding of bark protecting the rings of tender growth on the tree of life.

Pass me a daggone tissue.

 

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