Nature Versus Nurture…At The Movies

July 4, 2018
The question of nature versus nature has been long discussed by psychologists, social commentators…and filmmakers.

BIRTHMARKED (2018)

In this quirky comedy drama, married scientists, Catherine and Ben (Toni Collette and Matthew Goode), are so hung up on the question of nature versus nurture that they opt to turn their own family home into a petri dish. Along with their own baby-on-the-way, they also adopt two children from diverse backgrounds, and then set about raising them in a manner directly defiant to the circumstances of their birth: the child of the two scientists is brought up to love and focus on art, the progeny of two less-than-intelligent parents is pushed toward the academic, and the son of two people with serious anger management issues is prodded in the direction of pacifism. Basically playing the question of nature of nurture as a moot point, the film posits family life as too unpredictable to conform to a formula so specific.

GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984)

One of the earliest and most oft revisited texts to tackle the nature versus nurture question is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1914 novel, Tarzan Of The Apes, in which a baby boy is raised from infancy by a community of apes in the African jungle. Would such a child retain human characteristics and emotions, or would he become completely ape-like? The best movie adaptation of the book to tackle the question is Hugh Hudson’s stately 1984 epic, Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes, which – like most fictional investigations of the topic – finds the answer to be somewhere in the middle. Returning to his birthplace of England as an adult, Christopher Lambert’s jungle man has great difficulty fitting into the high society into which he was born, but he ultimately finds that he can straddle both worlds. The purity and simplicity of the jungle, however, have the greatest pull on his heart and soul.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 (2017)

Yes, it’s a big budget, special effects sci-fi extravaganza from Marvel Studios, but Guardians Of The Galaxy: Vol. 3 is really about the effects of parenting. After battling with the question of who his real father is for the course of the first Guardians film, Chris Pratt’s Earth-born, good guy intergalactic adventurer, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, finds out in the sequel. Raised by Michael Rooker’s hard-as-nails villain, Yondu, Quill thinks that he’s found the answer to his character make-up when he discovers that his birth father is Kurt Russell’s benign, all-powerful Ego. In a finely tuned turn, Quill is ultimately shaken to his core when Ego is revealed to be a far, far greater villain than Yondu ever appeared to be. Via a movingly operatic conclusion, Quill realises that he has learned much more from Yondu than he initially thought, and that, in this case, nurture has truly won out over nature.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (2014)

In this fascinating award winner from Japanese director, Hirokazu Koreeda (After Life, Nobody Knows), two families – one wealthy and one lower class – discover that their sons have been switched at birth. For six years, both families have been raising their sons, who hold no blood relation, and treating them both with love, care, and familial affection. When the horrific mistake is discovered and the doctors at fault brings the parents together to admit their mishap, they offer the suggestion that most families in this situation simply exchange the children as quickly as possible and move on with their lives. But is it that easy to instantly turn your back on a child that you have been raising as your own, merely because the child is “not yours”? While addressing the nature-versus-nurture argument in a surprising and deeply moving fashion, Like Father, Like Son is at its best on the issue of parental expectation, and how heartbreaking that can be.

TRADING PLACES (1984)

In this cracking comedy smash from John Landis (which kinda sorta borrows many elements from Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Prince And The Pauper), diabolical capitalists Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) test the nature/nurture debate on a whim (hilariously revealed in the denouement to be a one-dollar bet) by seeing if dodgy street hustler, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) can lead an honest, hardworking life, and Dan Aykroyd’s privileged WASP Louis Winthrop III will resort to one of crime, should their fortunes be reversed. At first, Billy Ray seems to fit into the world of business surprisingly well, applying his street smarts to the art of the deal, while Louis is all at sea, but eventually, with a little help from Jamie Lee Curtis’ hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, the upper crust wimp discovers that he’s got some crustiness of his own. Again, the answer to the nature-versus-nurture appears to exist somewhere (hilariously, in this case) in the middle.

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

In writer/director, Matt Ross’ finely judged drama, Viggo Mortensen’s strikingly self-possessed widower, Ben, raises his clan of kids with an iron fist. But this is no typical American “soccer dad.” Living off-grid in the wilderness, Ben teaches his kids about the many ills of society, and imparts his hoard of knowledge about hunting, farming, and utter self-sufficiency. Proving, however, that nurture doesn’t override everything, Ben’s kids ultimately form their own ideas outside of his own: though their genetics come from their father, as do their life lessons, these children are also their own people. Intriguingly, this pins another point in the nature versus nature debate: while we gain nearly everything from those that have birthed us and raised us, we also have character traits that are purely our own.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005)

Based on a graphic novel, this ersatz “superhero” story from David Cronenberg boasts a superb performance from Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, a smalltown, nice guy diner owner whose true identity – he’s a killing machine mob enforcer in hiding – is slowly revealed to his family with disastrous and bloody results. The nature versus nurture element of this rich and sprawling story effectively and tellingly comes into play through the character of Tom’s teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), who is having a hard time at school courtesy of some bullies. Though raised in a warm, loving family with a patriarch who espouses the best kind of values and treats everybody with kindness and decency, Jack has a strange well of violence and anger burning within him that eventually explodes with bone-cracking force. Where did it come from? As we learn more about Tom Stall’s extraordinary facility for hand-to-hand combat, it becomes clear that a propensity for violence can be innate, and indeed passed down from father to son.

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