It's been 18 years since The Parent Trap was first released. It's best known as the film that launched Lindsay Lohan's career, playing identical twins separated at birth who meet by chance, switch places, and scheme to reunite their parents. And like many of the 90s' most entertaining films this isn't really "serious cinema." But looking at it seriously one thing quickly becomes clear: The Parent Trap is an overlooked cult classic.
Yet even among supporters and detractors of the film's hugely successful director Nancy Meyers, The Parent Trap is rarely discussed. So why hasn't The Parent Trap achieved cult status? Maybe because the "cult" within which the film became a classic is that most belittled, misunderstood, and frequently ignored audience: young girls.
I ask the film's producer Charles Shyer whether the film's original fans have stayed loyal as they've aged from pre-teens to students to parents themselves. He tells me that in the hours before our interview, he signed three Parent Trap posters. "It's getting to be a regular thing."
This challenges the common assumption that few live action films targeting young girls play well to older audiences. Age up slightly and you have teen classics like Mean Girls, Clueless, and Bring It On that have broad, diverse fanbases. But typically series such as The Princess Diaries and the Olsen twins' back catalogue have been pitched solely to pre-teen girls. Girls in these films have fun, but none of these stories are as meticulously imagined as Meyers' The Parent Trap.
That's why they haven't joined the ranks of E.T., Stand by Me, and The Goonies. Like The Parent Trap, these are all categorised as "family films," a term that has, for a long time, described coming of age films starring boys. While a lot of these films have earned their cult classic status, their lasting impact also betrays Hollywood tendency to see boys as a more lucrative target market. Girls have been expected to identify with secondary characters: sisters, sidekicks, and comic relief. Meyers' The Parent Trap has only two male characters.
Shyer and Meyers were still fresh from the box office triumph of Father of the Bride and its sequel when they starting talking about remaking Disney's 1961 classic The Parent Trap. The thing that seems clearly "cult" about the film to me is that it has a subversive edge. I ask Shyer whether The Parent Trap is a proto-feminist tale, one so sweetly told even its conservative fans don't notice.
"These Christians… you know…" Shyer sighed in exasperation, reflecting on the fact that despite receiving middling reviews from mainstream film publications, Christian film reviews of The Parent Trap were unanimously glowing. "You can't control it. You get these accolades from religious groups and you go 'OK, great,' but that's not what we were going for. We were going for a movie that made you laugh, made you cry, and made you feel good."
But what about the feminist undertones? "We just thought of it as a cool story," he replied, as though he was considering the film in this light for the first time. "It would never occur to us to make a film that did anything but empower young girls or young women."
This is perhaps best reflected by Lohan herself. At the time, no young female actresses were really being offered roles as challenging as Lohan's dual-performance as twins Annie and Hallie. "Lindsay was quite brilliant in the movie," Shyer reflected. "There's no doubt about it."
It's a performance that carries a plot that at times could seem ludicrous. "What sort of mother would abandon a daughter and not tell the other about her father or identical sister?"
Shyer demurred: "The big problem was how do you justify a couple saying, 'I'll take one, you take the other?' It's a fucking weird decision to make! We rationalised it to some extent and it worked, but I have nine-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, and it's unthinkable!"
"It's an extraordinarily [Ancient] Greek situation really," says Simon Kunz, who played twin Annie's butler in the film. "You have a pair of twins and you don't tell them about each other! It's a hell of a premise. It's a really old kind of story, like Oedipus being taken as a child."
It's an interaction between Kunz and Lohan's Annie that is probably the film's most lasting offering to pop culture: the handshake. YouTube is even peppered with instructional videos, including one from the handshake's "official choreographer'"Jeanefer Jean-Charles.
"The handshake is a big deal isn't it?" said Shyer with a laugh. "We were all involved in writing it, but Simon [Kunz] and Lindsay worked it out on the set. They really hit it off those two, they made it their own."
"I can remember exactly," Kunz recalled. "Lindsay was in town to do the London sequences and we were in the house where she and her family were staying. We did it in one afternoon. Nancy and Charles would say 'OK, we love this move, but can we have some of that in it.' It didn't take as long as some people might think."
This is the thing, quotes and memes from The Parent Trap are not in the realm of Tina Fey's, "Stop trying to make fetch happen." They're more conversational and can only be learned through repeat viewings, that obsessive way young kids watch movies.
The Parent Trap is of lasting importance because it foregrounds the girls as whole characters, something Hollywood has only recently started doing in blockbusters. The film gives Lohan agency, brains, ingenuity, a sense of humour, and one of the strongest motivators known to filmmaking: reuniting family.
Meyers and Shyer lucked out casting Denis Quaid and the late Natasha Richardson, actors given the unenviable task of being instantly loveable without any chances to establish their characters beyond their relationship with their daughters. It's a film that constantly positions the viewer as co-conspirators in a situation every kid adores: knowing something an adult doesn't.
"With Natasha and Dennis and Lindsay and Simon [Kunz] and Lisa Ann Walter [as Hallie's nanny Chessy], those people were so fantastic. It really, really worked," Shyer sighed. "Man that was a good shoot."
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