It’s funny what finds its way into the family language. Local commercials listened to in the car become repeated phrases. Silly mispronunciations by toddlers become well-known words. Such random little sayings and callbacks to shared experiences become so ingrained in the vernacular that it’s easy for you to not even realize that the rest of the world has no idea what you’re talking about. It’s just what you know. My family’s secret language was made up of quotes from the 1996 film, That Thing You Do!, which I was convinced was one of the great achievements in cinematic history.
Now, in case you have never heard of That Thing You Do!, the film tells the story of the Wonders, a small town band in the ’60s that’s suddenly catapulted to fame thanks to a new drummer and their hit song “That Thing You Do!” It’s a fun, lighthearted movie that’s heavy on catchy songs and goofy lines and light on conflict and character growth. It’s also directed and written by Tom Hanks, who has a somewhat major part in the film. It’s a fine film, but forgettable.
So why was I convinced that the movie was on par with Citizen Kane and The Godfather? Because my family watched it a lot. I’m not really sure how or why it started, but the film ended up in heavy rotation in the Harper household. Maybe we really liked the music. Maybe my parents enjoyed the movie’s watered down, but pleasant world of rock ‘n roll. Maybe my mom just had a crush on Steve Zahn.
The likeliest explanation was because it’s a rather wholesome movie. There’s no nudity. No curse words. No violence. I was raised in a religious household and we mainly grew up on old movies and TV shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. For my parents, something modern that had an old-school sensibility was a nice change to the crass humor of popular shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons.
Regardless of the reasoning, we all loved it. And we watched it over and over again. The movie’s constant rotation meant that lines seamlessly became a part of our language. We’d pepper casual conversations with favorite phrases from the film like “You’re talking gibberish,” “Guys, Chad fell down,” or references to “Cap’n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters.” Even now, during my weekly call with mom, chances are high that one of us will drop a quote.
Family movies have that power. And this shared love allowed me to feel closer to my siblings. As the youngest in my family, pop culture was an easy way for me to feel like I wasn’t left out of conversations. And since That Thing You Do! was easily the most prevalent pop culture currency available, I made sure to consume it with extra devotion. By dropping references to the film, I could relate and connect and be on the same level with my older sister and not feel worlds away.
Even as we all got older and realized that almost nobody else in the world cares about this movie, we kept coming back to it. The movie mattered to our family — it’s as simple as that. There’s real joy in that intimacy, that specificity. And I think every family should have one, the more obscure the better.
Now, as adults, my sisters and I are spread out across the country and our time together is much rarer. A few summers ago, however, my family was all in the same place and decided to have a That Thing You Do! quote-off. It essentially turned into us reciting the movie back and forth and seeing who would forget a line first. I ended up winning and in addition to the family pride, the real prize was seeing how confused and slightly horrified my sister’s husband was as this game went on for about half the runtime of the actual movie. As the new guy, he just didn’t understand it. But he’ll learn to decode our language soon. After all, he’s part of the family.