Two collared dresses: On twinship and ‘The Parent Trap’

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There are movies I’m not sure exist. Movies so ingrained they seem dreamed. For years I had vivid flashbacks of wind in trees, a boy in a too-big coat waving his hands wildly, an orphan conductor of street noise. Was it a morphed memory? A daydream with roots? No, I realized eventually, it was “August Rush,” a movie about an accidentally abandoned young music prodigy that got 36% on Rotten Tomatoes.

I was haunted by an early-2000s Keri Russell film.

But childhood movies weren’t art objects to be judged in numeric values. Or at least, they weren’t for me. I pushed my face up toward movie screens and was indistinct from August, with his chapped red cheeks and keen ear. I was thumbing through scribbled composition books in “Harriet the Spy,” folded into her structured coats. I was stepping into Benny’s all-black PF Flyers and leaning into a sprint. 

These movies are panoramically embedded in my consciousness, stamped into the fabric of my memory. They created me, intertwined my history with parallel details. I can’t rewatch most of them; it feels incorrect in the way most memory feels better and more true when its contours are given room to sag. But there is one I can go back to, one that I do, again and again: Nancy Meyers’ 1998 “The Parent Trap.” 

These movies are panoramically embedded in my consciousness, stamped into the fabric of my memory.

At first, Annie and Hallie are sworn enemies. The two girls, ingeniously both played by Lindsay Lohan, are distinguished through accent and hair length. They have ended up at the same summer camp by chance, or, if you will, and the movie says that you will, fate. They have the same face, but somehow that is not enough to illuminate the truth: they are sisters, twins, separated across continents at birth. 

When they are finally pushed together and led to mirror their matching birthdays, examine their joint affinity for Oreos with peanut butter and, crucially, piece together a torn picture of their parents’ wedding, Annie tearfully, Britishly, exclaims, “We’re sisters!” A plan is devised. They will cut Annie’s hair to match Hallie’s, pierce Hallie’s ears to match Annie’s and fly to their respective undiscovered parent’s home. Annie teaches Hallie her secret handshake with her butler Martin on a dock over a sparkling lake, and when the camera pulls back from their hip bumps and twirls, they are shadows against the water.

“The Parent Trap” was a film that played on a loop on ABC Family in the early to mid-2000s. It was a movie to be watched while sick, or pretending to be, on long days on your sofa. It’s a movie that, after the air staled, the saltines started to make me nauseous and my eyes stung from watching hours and hours of infomercials and “Say Yes to the Dress,” woke me up to the world. 

More than its outrageous plot, it is the details and stray moments that kept me returning. The picture of young Leonardo DiCaprio pasted on the wall of the wooden cabin, the way the summer camp rain made distance from home suddenly real and drenched and adventurous. Their dad’s linen shirts, the pillowy white duvets in the London beds, the chocolate chip pancakes and the chili. The way they all wear their sunglasses so low on their noses, as if testing the exact balance of performed and casual glances. There’s the way the sun seeps into Hallie’s vineyard, the way even shadows are made supple and enviable. There are pools and phone booths, and so many collared dresses. There’s the absolute magic of the idea of another life, another version of yourself, living a life seeped in opposite beauty. 

There’s the absolute magic of the idea of another life, another version of yourself, living a life seeped in opposite beauty. 

I watched “The Parent Trap” on my last day of high school. My best friend and I put on our softest shirts (soft fabric to sink into soft textures), bought a pack of Double Stuf Oreos and Skippy peanut butter and sat on my floor next to each other. We too, knew what it was to go years without your double, and then find someone who knew all your gestures, had all your same tastes. We too knew what it was to be shadows knocking against each other, waiting to be sent miles apart. 

If the details of my childhood movies are in me, “The Parent Trap” is all around me: externalized as much as internalized. Annie and Hallie looking at each other across a pool in matching pastel yellow, cheekiness and pure communication determining their glances. My friend and I across any room, our eyebrows arched, instinctual correspondence. There could be a sparkling blue pool in between us, our overalls and sneakers fading yellow. There could be a vineyard or a British townhouse for us yet. Who’s to say if it’s true. Who’s to say if we remembered wrong. “Childhood is ancient,” Fleur Jaeggy wrote in her book “Sweet Days of Discipline.” “The Parent Trap” knows it is true.

Contact Lillian Wollman at [email protected].