My mom is the reason I’m a film critic.
I could (and probably should) be working on any number of things right now. But today is my birthday so I’m giving myself the gift of writing about something solely for my own sake and I want to write about that.
Maybe it’s because I’m turning 39 today and next year marks the big 4-0 that I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. Age has always really ever been a number for me, but, still…there’s no denying 40 is a benchmark that few other birthdays are. Reminiscing about where you’ve been and looking ahead to where you’re going is part of the package. I never could have foreseen as a kid that I’d grow up to be a film critic and work in the entertainment journalism industry, but, in hindsight, I really shouldn’t be surprised this is where I ended up.
A few months ago, I wrote a piece about how Stephen King shaped me as a child and my relationship with my dad. Books were the first pillar of my childhood. But movies were the second, and if my dad was the one who influenced my taste in books, then my mom was the one who encouraged my love of movies.
Watching movies in the ’80s and ’90s was a truly special experience simply because it was so much rarer then than it is now. The concept of on-demand streaming services didn’t exist yet; we had to work a little harder to watch a movie. Sometimes, we’d watch the featured movie (the only featured movie) on a network or, later, what was on HBO. The best times were when my mom would drive us to the local video store on a Friday evening – Blockbuster hadn’t yet started its giant expansion of the mid-’90s – and let us pick a movie. When we were young, we’d get one movie, heavily influenced by what my mom was comfortable letting us watch. But as we grew older, we each chose our own movies; getting three girls with wildly different personalities to agree on the same thing was a futile endeavor.
Without realizing it, my mom and sisters were my first exposure to being a film critic. Back then, my tastes weren’t as strongly defined, but even then I was exposed to movies I might otherwise not have ever watched were it not for my sisters’ choices and my mom’s indulgence. Mom would often pull a particular VHS off the shelf after it caught her eye and hold it up, proclaiming she thought it “looked like” one of us. In today’s parlance, my mom was great at finding movies that were Extremely Our Shit, but back then it was just a mom who was keenly attuned to her daughters’ individual tastes. Once, she borrowed another VCR and recorded Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and Footloose onto one single VHS for us so we wouldn’t have to keep renting them.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how rare this was. Sure, friends of mine also watched movies while growing up, but they were rarely encouraged or catered to by their parents the way my mom did with us. When we were standing in front of the rows of VHS tapes bickering, mom could have easily told us tough, we got one movie and one movie only – so make it snappy. But she never did. We were allowed to explore our own tastes and indulge in our love of movies. Provided we promised her we’d watch them all within the allotted time (this was back when you had 48 hours to watch rented movies before returning them), would walk out with a small stack of movies for the weekend, armed with the promise and potential of new stories.
That’s not to say we didn’t have boundaries. R-rated movies were strictly off-limits when we were kids. The first R-rated movie I ever saw in a theater was The Hand That Rocks the Cradle when I was 11. At the time, I was friends with a girl named Jenny, whose mother was, we’ll just say, somewhat more lax in setting boundaries. Jenny’s mom drove us to the theater and bought our tickets then left us alone; I’d lied to my own mom and told her we were going to see Beauty and the Beast. Months later, when it came out on home video, mom put the Disney movie on during a family get-together. I watched it, rapt, forgetting that I was supposed to have already seen it. At one point, she laughed and made an offhand comment about how even though I was the oldest of all the kids, I was the one who was paying the most attention to the kids’ movie. I spent the rest of the party with the specific, internal brand of anxiety that only a kid worried their parents had caught them in a lie can feel.
The bedrock of movies carried into my teenage years and grew deeper roots. My house was the hangout house, basecamp for parties and friends getting together. When we got too old to trick-or-treat, we’d pile into my living room with bowls of popcorn and nauseatingly large bags of candy and binge ourselves on cheesy horror movies. Every so often, we’d have a co-ed sleepover and we’d stay up until the early hours of the morning, keeping my poor parents awake with our laughter and shrieks at more horror movies – Dr. Giggles and the awful Leprechaun movies were annual favorites.
We didn’t just watch VHS tapes and DVDs at home, though. Going to the theater was a time-honored tradition with my tight-knit gang. In our tiny, country town, there wasn’t much to do outside of Friday nights when we were all at football and basketball games. None of us drank, so “field parties” – where a bunch of kids would grab a few bales of hay and head into a cornfield to get drunk – were out.
But we had each other, and we had the local theater, and that’s where we spent many of our weekends. Jurassic Park opened my eyes to the magic of practical effects and awe-inspiring world-building. A few years later, I marveled again at Twister, wondering how on earth they got the tornadoes to look like that. Were they real tornadoes? Did they create them on screen somehow? (Remember: Small town. Computers weren’t yet household items and CGI was only the vaguest of concepts to me at the time.) The disaster movies of the mid-’90s were a particular favorite of ours. I ate up Armageddon; my boyfriend and spent the next month obnoxiously referring to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” as “our” song. With The Rock, Con-Air and Face/Off, the span between the summers of 1996-97 was the year that introduced us to the glory and the wonder of Nic Cage. Titanic blew our minds; we saw it no less than four times in theaters. It was so packed our friend had to sit on a step in the aisle; the halcyon days of a small town in the ’90s when no one gave a damn about safety regulations. Bless my mom for having the patience to let me ramble about them all, even the bad ones.
To this day, it surprises me when I meet someone who says they “don’t really watch movies.” How? I wonder to myself. How can you not? Movies have always been such an intrinsic part of my life it’s hard for me to imagine one that is devoid of them. The strongest memories of my childhood, and especially my teenage years, have been built around watching movies. Looking back now, it seems inevitable that I became a film critic. Thanks to my mom, I’ve been one, in one way or another, my entire life. Sometimes, I wonder if it surprises her as much as it surprises me and I suspect the answer is “no.” Maybe she didn’t exactly know where I’d end up, but she certainly knew what she was encouraging. I wouldn’t be who I am now if she weren’t who she was then.
To that, all I can say is… Thanks, mom.