“My Baby’s Daddy”: thoughts on fatherhood in “Dirty Girl,” “Young Adult,” and “Broken Flowers”

Posted by Sappho on November 24th, 2012 filed in Movies

Just a few random thoughts on three movies (fatherhood’s more central to Dirty Girl and Broken Flowers than to Young Adult, but I feel like relating them to each other, so I’ll put all of them together).

Young Adult: I think that this may have made it into my Netflix queue because it’s a Diablo Cody film. This time, though, any comedy isn’t so much from the protagonist’s wit (as in Juno) as at her expense. Mavis, a not too successful young adult fiction writer and an even less successful stalker, is at best an former high school mean girl still too immature, in her thirties, to leave her high school ambitions behind. At worst, she’s something darker, alcoholic and unbalanced.

In some ways, this reminded me of a darker, more twisted My Best Friend’s Wedding. There’s the desperate effort to win an old flame from a woman to whom he’s already committed, and the man trying to talk her out of being a fool (in My Best Friend’s Wedding, the gay man who’s her real best friend, and in Young Adult a man she thinks is gay). But Mavis is bitchier than Julianne, there’s less money all around to cushion the characters’ problems (you’d hardly feel optimistic about the bride in My Best Friend’s Wedding dropping out of college to marry if you didn’t know that her father is so rich that she doesn’t actually need college) and Mavis’ ex is not about to be married, but already married and the father of a baby.

It’s a movie about stalking and Mary Sues, with Mavis’ failings as a writer mirroring her failings as a would be lover. As she sets out, with delusional certitude, to convince her high school boy friend that she and he are meant to be soulmates, she is writing a novel about an idealized version of her former high school self (idealized according to her values, that is).

You know this won’t end well. The only question is just how it will not end well. Buddy Slade, Mavis’ ex, clearly has no intention of leaving his wife for her, but can she lure a tired new father into a fling before he inevitably rejects her? Will she become a better person when she realizes her delusion? No, and not really. A bitch at the beginning, Mavis remains a bitch till the end, but occasional flashes of honesty do pierce her delusions. Perhaps it will be enough.

While Mavis’ ideas about sexual relationships are simple (a mix of belief that she as the pretty one should win out and belief in the one destined person she’s bound to have), her ideas about parenthood are more complicated and ambivalent. She dismisses Buddy’s bond with his baby (who would not be lured away from the boredom of babies by the hope of a reprise of his exes hot blowjobs?), but later makes it clear that she fixated on Buddy, out of all her many exes, because of an unfulfilled fantasy of Buddy as father. She had, you see, once been pregnant with his child. This should have been her with the baby shower, years ago. “And then 12 weeks into it, well, I had Buddy’s miscarriage.”

It was at this point, when Mavis was begging Buddy’s wife Beth to hate her, and Beth was steadfastly refusing to do so, that Beth suddenly reminded me of Melanie Wilkes, who refuses to hate Scarlett O’Hara no matter how Scarlett tries to steal Ashley from her. But I don’t remember liking Melanie much at all; I had the same “What is wrong with you? Stand up for yourself!” response to her that Mavis has to Beth in Young Adult. So why do I like Beth? To be sure, I was a teenager when I saw Gone With the Wind, so I don’t know what I’d think of Melanie Wilkes if I saw the movie now. But I guess it’s that Melanie was bound to a time, place, and class that I find particularly hard to empathize with, an ideal wife of the gentry of the Old South, while Beth, working class, Midwestern, and 21st century, gives wifely and motherly love and forgiveness for an old classmate a different feel. She has a past of her own:

Mavis Gary: I used to sleep in his t-shirts and boxers. I think I still have a few.
Beth Slade: Hey, I still have one of my ex-boyfriend’s t-shirts. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.
Buddy Slade: What? Which one?
Beth Slade: [laughing] Like I’d tell you.

She plays drums, not well but with enthusiasm, in a local band of new mothers seeking an occasional break from baby care. She feels like “my people” in ways that Old South Melanie never could. And so, while Mavis rages at her for being too wimpy to hate Mavis back, I see in Beth rather a trust too firm to be threatened by an old flame, a calm certainty that she, after all, is the love of Buddy’s life. It’s a trust that Buddy lives up to, as a husband and as a father.

Dirty Girl: At the start, this movie looks almost as if it were going to be like Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, a movie that’s entirely on the side of the teen playing hookey. After all, Danielle’s mouthing off in response to her small town Oklahoma school’s abstinence education program.

Mr. Potter: [to class] The only safe sex is *no* sex.
Danielle: [Puts up hand] What are your thoughts on the pull-out method?

Banished to special ed as punishment for being a “dirty girl,” mouthy Danielle is paired with sweet Clarke, who has been similarly banished for being gay, both assigned to be “parents” of a bag of flour. Bringing their homework, the bag of flour, “Joan,” in tow, they flee Oklahoma for Fresno, where Clarke hopes to escape military school, and Danielle to escape the evangelism of her Mormon soon-to-be stepfather, hit the California beaches, and move in with her long lost birth father.

If the movie sides with the small town’s sexual deviants, sympathizing with Danielle as she plays the part of her town’s Amanda Marcotte, mocking all attempts to prod her toward chastity, it soon becomes clear that Danielle does have some growing up to do. Like Mavis in Young Adult (but with more excuse, since she’s much younger than Mavis), Danielle takes a certain bitchy pride in her high school beauty status, and can be mean both to her mother and to the less popular Clarke. Unlike Mavis, Danielle also shows early that she has a heart, sometimes trading her initial putdowns of Clarke for impulsive defense of him, taking the role of beard to get his father off his back about being gay. Like Mavis, Danielle also has a story she’s writing that parallels her real life, and shows her reactions to it. But while Mavis, in writing her young adult novel, showed her desire to return to the role of high school “It Girl,” Danielle’s homework assignment story about baby Joan shows how she sees the adult she expects to become (“Daddy had to leave, as daddies sometimes do. Mommy soldiers on, as mommies must.”)

Daddies and mommies frame Danielle’s story, showing ways of being an adult that range from good enough despite flaws to dreadful. There’s Clarke’s outright abusive father, and the absent birth father who, it turns out, thought Danielle had been aborted. He may be Danielle’s father, but he’ll never be her Daddy. And then there’s her Mormon would be stepfather, who, despite a rocky start, looks to be the best of the adult father figures. You can see this when the mothers set off to rescue their children, and he, after some initial need for reassurance about the fact that his fiancee is headed to the house of her old flame, comes over to her side, urging her to go out and get Danielle back for both of them.

But the “Daddy” who does the most, on this roadtrip, to help Danielle grow up, is “my baby’s Daddy,” her new friend (and co-parent of a bag of flour), Clarke. Growing up, in Dirty Girl, involves a mix learning to stand up for yourself when the adults in your life are wrong, and learning that, with all their flaws, the adults in your life may still have something to teach you. Danielle starts the movie better at part that involves standing up and pointing out when the adults are wrong, while Clarke’s better at the part that involves listening and learning. By the end of the movie, each has picked up the part that he or she was missing. Besides, a gay “baby’s Daddy” is just the kind that Danielle needs, as a girl who’s no stranger to boys lusting after her, but perhaps less familiar with having a boy’s friendship. Meanwhile, Clarke, who’s convinced that no one can ever desire his body, takes inspiration from a friend who is not willing to let him settle for less than being desired.

As a gay “baby’s Daddy,” Clarke plays an interesting mix of traditional and non-traditional roles. Take the moment when Clarke’s abusive father finally catches up with them. Clarke, afraid that his father may hurt Danielle, gets between her and danger, and urges her to run for safety. After some initial hesitation, as Danielle hangs around to try to stop the father from hurting Clarke, she is persuaded to run. Like any proper “Daddy,” Clarke has taken the traditional male role of facing the danger himself, to protect “Mommy.” There’s no way that scene would play the same if the gender roles were reversed, and the boy were running away and letting the girl get beat up in his place. But the way that Clarke comes between Danielle and harm’s way is to provoke his father to attack him instead by finally coming out, and announcing firmly to his father that yes, he likes a good cock, and he’s no longer willing to be ashamed of that.

Broken Flowers: If Dirty Girl shows fatherhood found, for better or worse, Broken Flowers is about fatherhood lost, perhaps for good. Don Johnston, whose name is clearly chosen for similarity to Don Juan, receives an anonymous letter telling him that he has a nineteen-year-old son who is looking for him. It the letter for real? Is it a joke? If it’s real, who is the son, and who is the son’s mother? At the urging of his neighbor, and with the help of that neighbor’s online research, Don sets out to visit each of the five women that he slept with during the relevant year, bringing a bouquet of pink flowers for each.

Don’s exes live a range of different lives, middle and working class, in widely different parts of the country (Don having achieved enough success in the computer field that he can jet back and forth across the country without denting his finances too badly). The overall arc of the exes, though, flows from better to worse, as Don begins with a warm welcome from his first ex, and ends bringing flowers to the grave of his last. Which one bore his son proves difficult to tell. His son, if indeed he has a son, may be forever lost to him.

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