I knew the premise from reading reviews: A cranky, child-hating 40-year-old who found a loophole in the rules of a national spelling bee for middle school kids that lets him become a contestant and disrupt the proceedings. I pictured something like W.C. Fields set loose at a camp for gifted kids.
It sounded promising, in a mildly wicked way—along the lines of that great misanthropic comedy, "Addams Family Values." What I saw instead was the story of a pedophile “grooming” a pubescent boy for abuse.
This photo released by Focus Features shows Rohan Chand, left, and Jason Bateman in a scene from "Bad Words." AP Photo/Focus Features)
That’s right. That is what happens in "Bad Words," as anyone knows who has read the real life accounts of teachers, counselors, or priests who have been convicted of sexually abusing young teen boys: In narrative after narrative, the arc of the story is drearily scripted: an abuser—typically someone with a deeply troubled upbringing—locates a lonely, naïve boy less than half his age, and:
- Engages him in vulgar sex talk that breaks down his modesty and boundaries.
- Enlists him in breaking rules or even laws, so that the two of them share a “secret.”
- Introduces him to alcohol.
- Shows him pornography.
- Introduces the boy to sexual activity of a seemingly innocent sort.
Once the abuser has done all these things, and established a sense of complicity and a false “relationship” with a boy to whom he serves as the gatekeeper of secret adult activities…
- He makes his final move and engages in some sort of sex with the child.
In "Bad Words," Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) engages in the first five steps, and as the movie ends you can’t help wondering when he will get around to consummating step six. Maybe after the closing credits.
Trilby meets a 12-year-old contestant, Chaitanya, at the spelling bee and teaches him the “bad words” which give this movie its title. Then he teaches the boy to steal. He plies the boy with enough hard liquor to knock a kid of his size on his butt. He buys the boy sex magazines, and then has a long talk with him about breasts.
This photo provided by Focus Features shows Jason Bateman, center, as Guy Trilby, in the comedy, "Bad Words," a Focus Features release. (AP Photo/Focus Features, Sam Urdank)
Once he has stoked the boy’s curiosity, Trilby hires a prostitute to give Chaitanya a glimpse of the “real thing” in a filthy alley. After a dust-up during which the boy “betrays” his mentor by siding with his real father and trying to win the contest that Trilby has tried to rig in his own favor, they reconcile and reestablish their deep emotional bond—which far transcends Chaitanya’s connection with his officious, doting dad.
I haven’t yet mentioned some of the other “tells” that suggest that Bateman’s character is sexually disturbed: His relentless misogynistic comments. His reluctant couplings with an overweight, lonely woman reporter whom he is using to help him gain access to the children’s contest—whom he treats with amused disgust. His attempts to sabotage the psyches of 11- and 12-year-old contestants, through vicious bullying and lies—for instance, he presents the lonely reporter’s stolen panties to a boy, and tells him that they belong to the boy’s mother, who left them in Trilby’s hotel room the night before.
Even worse is the truly disturbing scene where Trilby, on stage at the contest, humiliates an insecure, obese adolescent girl by smearing her seat with ketchup, and convincing her that she has just experienced her first period. He taunts her about the “blood” that covers her buttocks, and goads her into fleeing the auditorium in tears, as her parents call out useless words of encouragement from the audience. All of this on national television.
Are you laughing yet? If so, you are the kind of person who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near children. Neither should "Bad Words" screenwriter Andrew Dodge.
This photo released by Focus Features shows actor-director Jason Bateman on the set of his film, "Bad Words." AP Photo/Focus Features, Sam Urdank)
And why is Trilby engaged in all this psychologically devastating sabotage? (Spoiler alert—and I want to spoil this movie, so please tell all your friends): To avenge himself on the spelling bee’s director—who it turns out is Trilby’s absentee father, a man who abandoned Trilby’s pregnant mother some 40 years before.
So to pay the world back for his own unhappy childhood, Trilby has set out to spoil the innocence of other children. To avenge his failures with women, he will humiliate them and traumatize other women. To redeem his own empty longings for a father, he will become a perverted, corrupting, sexually inappropriate father figure to Chaitanya.
All these actions fit the grim pattern we have seen in countless narratives of real-world sex abuse: A man with a damaged childhood and a crippled conscience avoids seeking the help he desperately needs—and instead becomes a psychosexual predator.
And the movie’s happy ending? Trilby swings by the boy’s school without his parents’ knowledge, and takes him for a reckless joyride. They end the movie together alone, in an emotional final montage. True love triumphs.
This movie deserves to be picketed—not just by parents’ groups and women’s organizations, but most of all by organizations of victims of sexual abuse. Screenwriter Andrew Dodge and director Jason Bateman have used their considerable talents to normalize and make respectable the actions of sexual predators—and teach us to laugh at the sick actions of adults that in fact are the warning signs that a child is being or will be abused.
John Zmirak is co-author of the upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014). His columns are archived at www.badcatholics.com.
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