An Ode to Tod Higgins – Keanu Reeves in ‘Parenthood’

When one thinks of the 1989 classic dramedy Parenthood, their mind likely immediately jumps to the performance of Steve Martin. It’s hard not to, as the film showcases Martin in his prime, adding to a list of films that showcases Martin as the archetypical well-meaning, but misguided father. 

However, a case can certainly be made for the brilliance of Keanu Reeves in the film. Reeves, who at the time of this film’s release was still early in his career but had still managed to make quite an establishment in his credits, almost manages to steal the movie. 

Parenthood tells the story of Gil Buckman (Steve Martin), and his siblings, Helen (Dianne Wiest), Susan (Harley Jane Kozak), and Larry (Tom Hulk), as they navigate complicated family dynamics within their immediate and extended families. This includes the subplot of Helen’s struggles with her own children, Garry (Leaf Phoenix) and Julie (Martha Plimpton). Julie is a soon-to-be teen mother, who spontaneously marries the father of her child, Tod (Keanu Reeves). Naturally, Helen has her reservations around the arrangement. Julie is young, aloof, and not seemingly ready for marriage and a child. When Julie and Tod move in with Helen and Garry, these fears only become all the more frustrated. 

That is, until Helen suddenly sees an unexpected opportunity for Tod to fit into the family. Helen’s ex-husband, and Julie and Garry’s father, is no longer in the picture, and wants nothing to do with his ex-wife or children. As Garry is a good bit younger than Julie, only just now entering the teenage years himself, Helen is struck with a fear that Garry will not have a positive influence in his life, and she worries for the effects of such. 

Garry is currently struggling with the awkwardness of puberty, and Helen is unsure of how to broach the subject with her son. She instead enlists the help of Tod, who has an honest and nonjudgemental conversation about “the birds and the bees” with Garry. This gives Garry a needed sense of relief, as he understands the normalcy of what he’s currently experiencing. While Helen is relieved too by Garry’s relief, the whole situation gives way for Tod to share a bit more of his own past, as he tells Helen about the complicated history involving his abusive father. This gives Helen a new sense of trust and respect for Tod, and she is able to get over her apprehensions to his new involvement in the family. 

In retrospect, this performance is the epitome of what makes Reeves so endearing. It would have been too easy for Tod to be a clueless teenage boy who knocked his girlfriend up. But Reeves approaches the role with such a level of sincerity, it’s hard for the audience to not also be charmed by it. A scene wherein an older boy who’s anticipating fatherhood gives the sex talk to his wife’s younger brother almost sounds like a recipe for disaster. The awkwardness and taboo nature of subject would make it easy for the scene to cross lines. But Reeves handles it with such a nonjudgemental attitude, it makes it endearing. Reeves deftly keeps the scene from swerving into being too much. In fact, he manages to make it sweet. 

And that is what is so compelling about Keanu Reeves. Embodying nontoxic masculinity in its truest form, he presents himself as a character one can’t help but root for. Be it through something as real as Parenthood, to something as absurd as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Reeves’ other 1989 credit), Reeves manages to consistently demonstrate that he is one to root for.  

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