The Film Club

It’s a great line, but Tolstoy was wrong. Happy families are not all alike; they’re as different as snowflakes — or mud tracks. Indeed, the very concept of happiness, like “normalcy,” is of dubious value. Not because we don’t wish to be happy — but because, as William James observed, with his customary insight, “consciousness is in constant change.” So, of course, is experience — a truism that does not make the inevitable challenges life presents us any less difficult when put before us.

Canadian novelist David Gilmour addresses some of those challenges in his engagingly unpretentious new memoir, The Film Club, about the unconventional route he takes when presented with the not-unconventional problem of an adolescent son with little to no interest in school. Gilmour strikes an unusual bargain with his teenage charge, Jesse, allowing him to drop out on two conditions. First, no drugs; second, Jesse must agree to watch three movies a week (in their entirety) at home with his father in a kind of homegrown tutorial he hopes will help create a greater understanding of life, as the two try to find their way out of the woods.

It’s a bargaining strategy that, few parents will be surprised to hear, is not entirely successful. But despite his son’s occasional lapses from the path, despondent as he is over girlfriend problems and the prospect of a potentially dead-end future, Gilmour’s chronicle of this mutually agreed upon descent into the dark is a moving, surprisingly uplifting account of the enormously complicated, largely uncharted emotional waters of parenthood.

Just as sinking into a good movie can be a dreamlike experience, in which the customary rules of time and space are suspended, Gilmour and his son’s experimental departure from the educational map creates a kind of magic, boundaryless state, with all the excitement, confusion, and mutual misgiving that accompany such adventures. When Gilmour’s ex-wife, Maggie, objects to the notion — suggesting that the boy should, at minimum, get a job — he goes on defense, “spouting rash, sweeping generalizations that would have done Che Guevara proud” even as he wonders: “What if I’m being hip at the expense of my son and letting him ruin his life?”

Not to give away this memoir’s Hollywood ending, but ruination is not in the cards. Gilmour is definitely hip, though. A former critic for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, he’s a man of eclectic, charmingly unsnobbish tastes. He starts off his charge with a viewing of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but the classic account of preadolescent alienation strikes a little too close to home. And he presents a bemused account of textbook Boomer disappointment when he screens A Hard Day’s Night and gets a one-word review: “Dreadful.”

Gilmour elicits a more enthusiastic, and perhaps more hormonally predictable, response to Basic Instinct: “You have to admit it, Dad — this is a great film.” He also shares enthusiasms for such guilty pleasures as Ishtar, Internal Affairs (“Don’t be fooled by his good looks, or his talk-show philosophizing,” lectures Gilmour, “Richard Gere is the real thing”), The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and the subtleties of James Dean’s performance in Giant.

But as they engage in a Socratic dialogue on the merits of Hitchcock and Citizen Kane, which his son deems “pretty good but no way the best movie ever made,” the two are engaging in an emotional dialogue far more meaningful than an upturned thumb. Indeed, there’s much that they share beyond the impromptu film festival. Both are in crisis: Gilmour has recently lost his job, and while trying to prevent open panic (he is Canadian, after all) has been reduced to arranging networking lunches with long-lost acquaintances in attempts to drum up work. At one point, he even applies unsuccessfully, to be a bike courier but is told that the cutoff age is 50.

Jesse is dealing with his own demons, including a volatile relationship with a manipulative package named Rebecca, who likes to play him off against her other suitors. Dad valiantly sides with his son (“I think she’s a troublemaking little bitch who loves to torment you”) even as he reluctantly acknowledges, given his own track record of failed relationships, that only time can heal such torments.

He tries to check out his son’s performance as a rapper at the same Toronto club where the Rolling Stones once gigged, only to be turned away at the pass (“You got caught, eh?” his wife teases him); nurses Jesse through attempts to reconcile with Rebecca and the beginnings of a new romance; and most troublingly, has to deal with a bad scare, and brief hospitalization, after a cocaine binge, in violation of the ground rules.

Still, they bond: “We talked about the sixties, the Beatles (too often, but he indulged me), drinking badly, drinking well, then some more about Rebecca (“Do you think she’ll dump me?”), Adolph Hitler, Dachau, Richard Nixon, infidelity, Truman Capote, the Mojave Desert, Suge Knight, lesbians, cocaine, heroin chic, the Backstreet Boys (my idea), tattoos, Johnny Carson, Tupac (his idea), sarcasm, weight lifting, dink size, French actors, and e.e. cummings. Such a time! I might have been waiting for a job, but I wasn’t waiting for life.”

The two boys are clearly having a blast and helping help each other through their respective identity crises. But all good things come to an end. As Jesse increasingly questions his emotional dependence on his father, he also takes a hard look at the value of a career in telemarketing and decides to head back to school. At no point does Gilmour suggest that it’s the cram course in the Lessons of the Silver Screen that have done the trick. He’s too modest — and relieved — to suggest that his approach represents a victory over teen angst.

But his son has learned at least one life lesson. When Jesse’s girlfriend tells him she has the right to express her own opinions about the movies, he has a pointed response: “Not about The Godfather you don’t.” Like father, like son.