Young men have never been more in danger nor more dangerous than they are today. From all sides, they are bombarded by toxic and contradictory messaging on their place in the world which, if left unchecked, can fester and ultimately explode. The damage to the individual, or, in more drastic cases, to the world around them, can be unthinkable. It’s an idea that Eric Bergkraut and Ruth Schweikert play with in Parents – Wir Eltern (the married couple’s debut feature), and it’s one of many juggled in its 96 tight minutes, running through politics, family psychology, middle-aged sexuality and even race at such a fleeting pace as to lose a number of interesting potential hypotheses in the crowded field of high-minded concepts they consider.
Ostensibly a domestic comedy, Parents – Wir Eltern centres on the frustrations that mount within an affluent family unit when its two eldest sons, twins Anton and Romeo, refuse to fly the nest and instead settle into lives of antagonism and apathy within the family home, even as they barrel towards their twenties. Bergkraut himself stars as put-upon, neutered patriarch Michael while Elisabeth Niederer subs in for Schweikert as high-flying mother Veronika, who is running for political office. The couple’s three sons are all played by the three real-life Bergkraut children — Anton and Romeo by Elia and Ruben, and preteen golden child Benji by Orell.
As such, Parents – Wir Eltern plays out like a family therapy session writ cinematically. Both the interpersonal friction and the easy chemistry that comes with familial bonds are palpable between the performers, while Niederer slips neatly into the ensemble, likely thanks to close guidance from Schweikert. It makes for entertaining viewing in the less overtly thematic stretches of the film, as Michael goofs around playing cowboys with his twin sons, or reads bedtime stories to a sleepy Benji.
While it functions amicably as a gentle hangout comedy in these brief moments of pause, Parents – Wir Eltern has broader ambitions to diagnose the ills at the heart of the nuclear family. In doing so, it’s pulled in a number of directions and fails to make a fulsome meal of any of its tangents.
Central to the conflict in the family are indeed Anton and Romeo, who leave a trail of household detritus in their wake as they schlep about without ambition or drive. Michael and Veronika, having spent the better part of two decades providing the boys a conventional and comfortable upbringing, are bereft and enraged at their unwillingness to get out into the world and achieve, or even simply to empathise with their nearest and dearest.
It is Anton and Romeo who are the most intriguing figures, epitomising as they do the plight of middle class white youths across western society. Disenfranchised and uninspired, they flout social convention and bandy about sexist and racist language without a second’s thought, thriving on their incendiary impact on the household. Bergkraut and Schweikert give the boys select moments to explore their own frustrations, and the external, societal factors that have led them to this malaise, but as Parents – Wir Eltern is sprawling and unfocused, the twins are not given full due to properly interrogate their damaged psychologies or their privileged status.
Michael and Veronica instead are the driving force of the plot, with Anton and Romeo hanging more like spectres around the edge of the narrative — villains of the piece rather than one facet in a broader sociological debate. Husband and wife are sent into a tailspin by their sons’ inexplicable behaviour, and much of the film’s comedy, supported by energetic editing and a springy, drum-driven score, comes from the absurd lengths they will take to force things back on course. The characters’ marriage is suffering for it and there are further interesting vignettes that hint at the rituals and quirks their dysfunctional pairing requires simply to operate.
However, these rituals, the questionable attitudes of the boys and a number of other intriguing shadings to the family’s day-to-day lives are only explored at skin depth before Parents – Wir Eltern bounces into its next flight of whimsy. Bergkraut and Schweikert attempt to imbue the hijinks with scientific weight by framing the episodes with talking-head cuts to real-life family psychologists, analysing the happenings onscreen with their own theories and expertise. They provide a useful, objective window into the characters’ mindsets, but their lack of impact on the plot mean they once again become a diverting surface detail rather than a substantial contribution to a meaningful whole.
Perhaps Bergkraut and Schweikert are too close to the subject, too familiar with the specific foibles and nuances of their own family tapestry to uncover anything revelatory without outside assistance. By controlling the group exercise as intensively they do, they inhibit its ability to penetrate into the deeper philosophical arguments that Parents – Wir Eltern is clearly yearning to exploit.
Because of this, what could have been a work of focused, incisive psychological exploration must instead settle to be a perfectly enjoyable and curious family comedy. The couple show directorial flare, certainly, and the Swiss-German dialogue is packed with idiosyncrasies and quotable wisecracks. Parents – Wir Eltern is an imminently likeable movie, but frustrating for the insurmountable reach of its ambition.
In spite of the tantalising web of threads it weaves, Parents – Wir Eltern fails to cohere into a unified whole and therefore its bluster and chaos amounts to so much wasted energy. Perhaps some family conflicts are best left in therapy.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.