Parents Just Don’t Understand—and That’s OK

All of Us Strangers charts a new direction for queer cinema

Lio Wong

Jamie Bell and Claire Foy in All of Us Strangers. Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

We live in a golden age of cinematic embraces between queer children and their parents. The PFLAG-waving parade arguably began with 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, whose young protagonist, Elio, finds that his father not only knows he is gay but professes to envy the intensity of his romance with a much older man. A year later, we got Love, Simon, whose titular character comes out to his parents while opening presents on Christmas morning and finds himself the recipient of a teary monologue from his therapist mother promising unconditional acceptance. The adult protagonist of 2020’s Happiest Season, Abby, learns that her father is ready to sacrifice the support of a major donor so that he can publicly champion her queerness while on the mayoral campaign trail. Finally, 2023 gave us the cake-batter-coated fantasy of Red, White, and Royal Blue, in which the first female president of the United States takes time out of her day to lecture her newly-out son about bottoming and Truvada. Parents in these recent movies do not slowly come around to their child’s coming out; they trumpet their full-throated support. Their kids are here, they’re queer, and goddammit, the parents get it.

These movies represent a sharp departure for American cinema. A tour through The Celluloid Closet (1995), the landmark documentary of queer cinematic imagery based on Vito Russo’s 1981 study, makes it painfully clear that for most of its history, Hollywood has largely depicted queer existence as a litany of suffering, while positioning parents, if they appear at all, as a central wounding force in the queer psyche. Historically, parents of queer children in the movies disown their kids, whether literally or figuratively (in a surprising number of these films, parents are simply absent). To watch gay movies from the 1950s up through, say, 2016 is to learn to cringe when a parent walks into the frame, anticipating they will force their cowering children onto the streets. The pivot toward portrayals of parental affirmation has, then, been sharp and undeniable.

The essential unknowability of others, including or perhaps especially the unknowability of those we love, is the steel that runs through the movie.

Unsurprisingly, media coverage of these movies has tended to paint the rise of what one might call the “embrace and understanding” narrative as a positive, perhaps even revolutionary, development. Seeing parents throw their arms around their queer children on the big screen, some critics have suggested, works as a kind of instructional video: parents can learn, through watching, how to hug and affirm instead of sending their child packing. Directors and writers of these films, meanwhile, sometimes suggest that watching queer kids getting loved so hard by parents who know too many of the words, who get it too much, is itself subversive—because this is the first time that parents have been shown as being entertainingly expert at being allies.

Given the grim history of Hollywood’s treatment of queer characters, these arguments have a surface plausibility. But while these movies may be comforting, do they actually satisfy anyone? I don’t hate feeling good. But I find these films’ entreaties for acceptance stifling, prescriptive in the moralism lingering just underneath their tear-stained embraces. I experience a kind of exhaustion viewing their rah-rah energy beneath the thick billows of theoretical confusion. They leave the same tired aftertaste I get picking Bank of America confetti off of my clothes in Pride Month. What, I find myself wondering, does it even mean to “accept”? What should acceptance, between a parent and child, entail? And why is the opposite of being thrown out of the house being “understood”?

All of Us Strangers, the new film from Andrew Haigh, the director of Weekend (2011), a landmark of queer cinema, grapples with these questions as it tells the story of the relationship between a gay child and his parents. And I was relieved to find that, unlike its recent predecessors, the film does not equate love with acceptance or acceptance with understanding.

All of Us Strangers tells the story of a screenwriter, Adam (Andrew Scott), who returns to his childhood home in the suburbs of London just as he begins to write a screenplay about his parents, who died in a car crash when he was twelve. Upon his arrival, he discovers that his parents miraculously live on in the home. Though he has aged, they have not, so that he appears older now than they are. Adam’s parents are desperate, in a basic way, to know him. They press him on his life in their absence and are thrilled to learn that he is a writer, that he has moved to London. When Adam arrives wet from the rain one day and takes off his sopping clothes, his mother reaches out to his body, taking in the fact of his maturation and the surprise of the person he has grown into in their absence.

And yet, as its title suggests, All of Us Strangers is centered not around understanding, but around inexplicability—the limits of knowing and the possibility or even necessity of remaining in large part a stranger to someone you love. (As if to reinforce this in formal terms, the film itself plays with genre, blurring the boundary between ghost story and fantasy.) Adam discusses his queerness most bluntly in two exchanges, one with each parent. Each scene is effectively a coming out, refracted through the lens of mutual surprise and disappointment. In one, Adam’s father recalls hearing Adam cry in his room each day after school. When Adam asks why his father never came in to comfort him, his father admits not wanting to confront the possibility that his son was the kind of child whom other children would bully. Even more painfully, he did not want to confront the fact that as a child he, too, would have been one of those bullies.

In the other scene, Adam’s mother asks whether he has found a girlfriend, and in response he tells her that he is gay. Matter-of-factly, she says that no parent would want to think such a thing about their child. She is incredulous to learn that gay people can marry and is then fearful about the implications of his gayness, worried that it might bring loneliness or the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. When he tells her that things have changed, she says, simply and truthfully, “I wouldn’t know about that.”

In Haigh’s tender and generous lens, Adam’s parents’ lack of understanding of this fundamental part of his identity does not preclude them from loving him, or him, in turn, from loving them. The essential poignancy of the movie derives from the idea that Adam cannot stop coming back to them, and to the simultaneous safety and hurt of that home. For much of the film, he seems to be fleeing the modern world—the London where, he reassures his mother, he can walk safely down the streets as an openly gay man—in order to return over and over to the house where his parents remain, trapped in the eternal amber of the eighties. He comes back to reassure them and to seek reassurance for himself. They trade memories of their disappointments in each other, their annoyances and mutual failures.

Importantly, queerness is only one axis of what they do not know, and what they hide, from each other. Often, when Adam returns home, one parent is there and one is missing. But they do not tell him where they go, nor do they ever discuss the metaphysical loophole by which they have stayed alive. The essential unknowability of others, including or perhaps especially the unknowability of those we love, is the steel that runs through the movie: in their final moments together, Adam hides from his parents the circumstances of their own death, sparing them as well himself.

I felt, watching All of Us Strangers, that I had seen—for perhaps the first time in my life—a film brave enough to assert that the alternative to parental rejection does not have to be saccharine, absolute affirmation. It satisfied a longing I had felt for years: to see a movie that depicted a textured relationship between queer children and their parents, such as the nuanced ones portrayed in Andrew Solomon’s 2013 book Far from the Tree. Solomon, who is gay, centers Far from the Tree on families characterized by children with what he dubs “horizontal identities,” a term describing traits that lead them to diverge markedly from the experiences and identities of their parents, rather than the more traditional “vertical identities” that they might inherit through genetics or upbringing. (The book began, by Solomon’s account, when he was assigned to report on deaf culture and was struck by the parallels between the deaf experience and his own queerness, especially when deaf children spoke of their relationship to their hearing parents.) Far from the Tree profiles parents whose children differ from them in many ways, including children who have dwarfism, who are autistic, who are trans, and even those who are prodigies.

In emphasizing the boundaries of acceptance, even comprehension, All of Us Strangers sets parent and child on surprisingly equal ground.

These horizontal identities lead inevitably to rifts in what parent and child can know about each other. And though Solomon specifically selected parents, as he tells us, who came to accept their child’s identity, Far from the Tree, like All of Us Strangers, offers a different, more complicated account of acceptance from the one we get in Love, Simon and Happiest Season. Acceptance, for Solomon, is not about knowing but about “misapprehending.”

In one of many moving reported scenes, Solomon visits an annual meeting of Little People of America, a conference for people with dwarfism, and goes over to comfort an adolescent girl whom he discovers half-sobbing, and half-laughing, at the shock of finding herself surrounded by thousands of other people who look like her, as her mother stands off to the side, watching. Some version of this scene repeats itself throughout the book; over and over, parents acknowledge the discomfiting reality that there are vast communities of people on the Earth, strangers to them in all other regards, who might nonetheless understand some central part of their children more than they themselves ever will.

The acknowledgment, or concession, that children and parents need not—perhaps cannot—understand each other on some of the most fundamental axes of their separate lives also forms the emotional core of All of Us Strangers. And while Haigh’s insistence on the limits of what a parent can know might seem bleak when measured against the sheer happiness of a movie like Happiest Season, let alone the campy joy of a movie like Red, White, and Royal Blue, the message of All of Us Strangers is, if not joyous, then deeply humanist: in emphasizing the boundaries of acceptance, even comprehension, it sets parent and child on surprisingly equal ground. Adam returns repeatedly to his parents to explain who he is, and they attempt, in turn, to explain themselves to him—the fears they held as young parents, the worries of their own inadequacy, the hope they might have grown to be better, if they had had more time. In this, the movie echoed, for me, the conversations in Far from the Tree that I remember and return to most. Repeatedly, throughout the book, children discuss how much of their parents’ experiences is unfathomable to them just as frequently as their parents mention the strange joy and heartbreak that comes with realizing that their children’s identities have given them lives profoundly different from their own.

Ultimately, in these works, it is not a child’s queer identity that prevents them from being understood by a straight parent; rather, being misapprehended comes to seem like the base state of any relationship between humans. And “acceptance” means accepting that between a parent and a child, and perhaps between any two people, lie vast territories of human experience, maybe large enough to cover the whole span of a life, that each can never know about the other. To love one another is to wish that with more time, you would come to a mutual understanding—and then to admit that you may not. In its portrait of the reality of this hard task, All of Us Strangers is strangely empowering. The attempt to understand those we love, Haigh suggests, could take up a lifetime, ten lifetimes, an eternity—if only we could let it.

Lio Wong is a writer from New Jersey. They are currently completing their PhD in cognition and language at MIT.
Originally published:
February 26, 2024


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