The road trip is a microcosm of family life — full of joy and singing, deep conversations and fighting, kids being annoying and parents, annoyed. It’s no wonder the backseat shenanigans and front-seat breakdowns loom so large in movies. From moments of silent reflection to the ultimate dad meltdown, these classic car moments stand out as equal parts truthful and ridiculous. They’re enough to make parents long for the upcoming summer road trip season — or send the kids off to camp.
Vacation (1983): The Meltdown
Over the course of the National Lampoon series, the meltdown of Chevy Chase’s Clark W. Griswold is a hallmark of each movie. In the original film, watching the ultimate family man descend into madness as his family turns against his vacation plans is perhaps the most relatable thing that happens in the entire movie. “This is no longer a vacation, it’s a quest,” he says to his complaining wife and two children as they drive through a dark and stormy night in their station wagon. The resulting string of expletives is the culmination of a week of family dysfunction. His unblinking delivery the face of millions of fathers on the road. Zip-a-de-doo-dah indeed.
A Christmas Story (1983): Oh fudge
There is perhaps no more universally identifiable sequence in this perennial holiday mainstay than the fateful tire-changing scene. When Ralphie’s family blows a flat, The Old Man eagerly enlists his eldest for a little roadside bonding via a race against the clock to change the wheel. But when the kid loses his grip of the bolts and his language filter, letting out a reflexive “oh fudge” that isn’t a fudge at all, the moment transforms from a father-son bonding experience to a Lifebuoy soap taste test following an awkward ride home.
Parenthood (1989): “Diarrhea”
Few films have captured paternal defeat at the hands of scatological humor better than Parenthood’s opening moments. Post-Little League game, the oldest of three children regales his cackling siblings with the age-old “diarrhea” song. The look of exasperation exchanged by parents Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen speaks volumes. Their lack of disciplinary measures when they find out, indeed, what happens when you’re sliding into first and you’re feeling something burst shows this is a battle that they’ve fought, and lost, before.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): “Me and Julio”
It’s short but sweet and involves a garbage truck rather than a car, but Royal Tenenbaum’s hitched ride on the back of a garbage truck with sheltered, tracksuit-rocking grandchildren Ari and Uzi does as much to illustrate family bonding in Wes Anderson’s film than its reams of literary dialogue. The look of joy on the face of the kids and their estranged grandpa as they coast on the back of the truck during a day of go-karts, dog fights and casual theft is perhaps the movie’s most iconic image, and it’s most heartfelt moment.
Road to Perdition (2002): “Here’s the clutch, and it does the clutching.”
This often-overlooked period piece from American Beauty and Skyfall director Sam Mendes functions as a meditation on fathers and sons, with Tom Hanks playing against type as a ruthless Irish mob enforcer forced to hit the road with his surviving son after his family is massacred. For the most part, it’s a heavy affair as Hanks’ character seeks vengeance on his own crime lord father figure (Paul Newman, in his last live-action role). But there are moments of levity, none more poignant than an extended sequence in which Hanks teaches his adolescent son to drive a Depression-era manual transmission car, complete with frequent clutch mishaps. Sure, he’s doing it so he can serve as a getaway driver for a series of bank robberies, but subtract the Tommy guns and you’ve got a universal father-son bonding experience captured beautifully.
Johnson Family Vacation (2004): Music Wars
There are few more adversarial topics during a family road trip than the choice of music, and this slight-yet-amusing entry in the family vacation genre absolutely nails the intergenerational conflict. Distraught with his son’s love of gangsta rap, dad Cedric the Entertainer implements a rule dictating that no artists who had been shot will be allowed in the car, effectively barring the music of Tupac and Biggie. The tables turn when son Bow Wow starts sorting through dad’s music and thinning out the collective discography of Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, leaving the streets strewn with discarded CDs and no choice but to listen to the youngest’s kiddie music. There are no winners in this war.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006): The Full Family Push
Dysfunction is the hallmark of this quirky indie riff on the Vacation model, in which a drug-addled grandpa, a suicidal uncle, a sweet little girl, a silent teen, and two bickering parents hit the road in a busted-up VW van. But when the van ends up on the side of the road, the family puts aside its differences to work in tandem to jump-start the car by pushing it down an empty road and hopping in like a bunch of quirky hobos jumping onto a train. It’s the moment in the film when you truly realize that these people love each other and can work together … if they just shut up.
Step Brothers (2008): “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
To anyone who has ever endured a full-family car singalong, just be grateful that you’re not in a family that has taken expensive group voice lessons and is prone to break into a cappella renditions of GNR radio hits.
Inside Out (2015): Opening Montage
Like most Pixar films, Inside Out is full of big emotional moments — the collapse of Goofball Island and the fate of Bing Bong chief among them. But the film’s opening moments may be its most impactful, laying out considerable groundwork and immediately burrowing into the psyches of anyone with fond memories of a childhood road trip. When the main characters pack up the car and move from Minnesota to San Francisco, the audience is treated to a brief montage of the road trip, complete with Rocky Mountain vistas and late-night back-seat naps. Yet the road trip itself comes back throughout the film, embedded in the protagonist’s memories and emerging as talking points for the parents and child as they cope with the changes in their lives, with glimpses of roadside tourist traps and bad diner food igniting conflicting emotional reactions for the characters and any audience member who longs for the simple pleasure of a cross-country adventure.
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