A “be careful what you wish for” tale, “Parents” recalls Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader’s “The One I Love” in its similarly matter-of-fact yet fantastical portrait of a couple trying to revive their stagnant marriage. Danish thesp-turned-writer/director Christian Tafdrup’s first feature eventually enters darker terrain than that U.S. indie comedy, with not entirely satisfying, yet consistently intriguing, results. An odder, twistier spin on “suddenly young again” comedies — this is no “Freaky Friday” — “Parents” looks likely to get just spotty exposure beyond the festival circuit, but its strong premise could invite remakes custom-tooled to fit different cultures’ takes on aging.
Pleasant, unremarkable suburbanites Vibeke (Bodil Jorgensen) and Kjeld (Soren Malling) are still working, if nearing retirement. When their blandly self-absorbed only-child Esben (Anton Honik) moves into his own place, he promptly loses all interest in mom and dad, who suffer classic empty-nest syndrome; Vibeke, especially, feels depressed and useless. It’s Kjeld’s idea that they move to the city center — and not just anywhere, but right back into the once-decrepit, now fully-refurbished little attic flat where the duo spent some happy, as-yet-childless years at the beginning of their relationship.
Though initially reluctant, Vibeke goes along with the scheme. Somewhat shockingly, it initially works exactly as hoped: Their youthful sense of fun, adventure, and romance is rekindled, thanks in part to Kjeld’s rather obsessive reconstructing of every detail remembered from decades earlier. (At first this just means digging up old LPs, posters, and thrift-store furniture; eventually he goes so far as to filthy-up the place to make it seem less “new.”) At a certain point, however, this reliving the past takes an all-too-literal turn. One morning, the fiftysomethings wake to find the clock has wound back three decades or so: Vibeke (now Miri Ann Beauschel) is again the pretty, just-out-of-college girl in old photos, and Kjeld (now Elliott Crosset Hove) is her gangly, smooth-skinned beau.
This inexplicable occurrence frightens, then exhilarates the pair, once they embrace it. But there’s still Esben to deal with (who inconveniently remembers he has parents again when his girlfriend dumps him and he needs shoulders to cry on). The needs of an adult offspring become awkward now that his parents have reverted to youthful irresponsibility themselves. And as the central duo are back at an earlier, formative, period in their lives, there’s also the possibility that individual growth might now divide rather than cement their domestic partnership.
Treating its “magical” hook with no outer trappings of the supernatural (or even whimsy), “Parents” is a bit like one of those fairy tales in which a witch grants wishes, but what the wisher thinks they want turns out to be a slippery slope whose pitfalls grow ever deeper. Some later developments are a bit creepier than Tafdrup’s script quite knows what to do with, and the resolution ties things up well enough without really making clear the point of it all. Still, those elements worth quibbling over here are also worth talking about. “Parents” may feel a bit uneven and over-ambiguous as a whole, but its off-center mix of slightly black comedy and drama is never less than interesting.
The newcomers as well as veteran actors are very good in a film whose physical scope is just as modest, and accomplished, as its cast.