Twenty years have passed since the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap was released — so why are we still talking about it? In terms of sheer viewing pleasure, The Parent Trap, with its extreme yet charming premise, its over-the-top yet appealing characters, and its Nancy Meyers-approved sets, achieves a solid 11 out of 10. But enjoyment doesn’t necessarily translate into multi-generational appeal that spurs memes on the internet two decades after its release. For example, you enjoy cotton candy — and then you promptly forget about it. The Parent Trap isn’t a cotton candy movie. It’s like the Golden Opulence Sundae from Serendipity. While watching, you know you’re witnessing something extraordinary; something that doesn’t come around too often.
I recently re-watched The Parent Trap and wham, just like that, I figured it out. The reason The Parent Trap has endured is Lindsay “Freakishly Skilled Child Actor” Lohan. In each scene of her movie debut, the 11-year-old child wonder sprinkles something that looks a lot like magic and feels a lot like lasting power.
Let’s review, with level-headed precision, the acting acrobatics Lohan performs in The Parent Trap. Lohan — who I thought was a twin for most of my childhood – was tasked with playing the offspring of Elizabeth James and Nick Parker, two people who met on the Queen Elizabeth 2, got married, had twins, and then, after separating, concluded the only reasonable option was for each to take one of their kids and call it a day (this is very questionable decision).
At least the twins have equally plush living conditions. One twin (Hallie) grows up on a lush Napa Valley vineyard, and the other (Annie) in an enviable multi-story London townhouse. The twins' upbringings (and family members) influence their personalities. American Hallie Parker, raised among kind, Labrador Retriever-esque people and a gorgeous golden retriever, is confident and precocious. Peak Movie Cool is achieved when Hallie strides into the Maine summer camp wearing sunglasses, and then casually slides them atop her head. This isn’t to say I favor Hallie over Annie, of course. Annie James, who was raised by a serene dress-designer mother and a mischievous butler, is just as confident in her poker playing, fencing, and life skills as Hallie. She just cloaks her self-assuredness behind a layer of British demureness.
Technically, all of these biographical details are indicated in the script. It's Lohan who internalizes these details, and makes Annie and Hallie come alive as wholly realized, individual characters. Lohan's Hallie and Annie are each imbued with subtle ticks that make them easily distinguishable from each other. Take the moment when Annie and Hallie emerge from their rides to camp for the first time. Their reactions are indicative of their personalities: Annie spins around with wonder, and Hallie surveys the camp appraisingly. When Hallie and Annie switch places and visit their other parent's house, these reactions are repeated. By this point, Annie and Hallie have cut their hair and pierced their ears so they’re even more identical. Yet from the way Annie spins and gawks as if the London townhouse lives up to expectations, you know which twin is which.
This brings us to what makes Lohan’s achievement in The Parent Trap so incredibly impressive. Look, many actors have played twins before — James Franco in The Deuce, Armie Hammer in The Social Network, Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler in the sorely under-appreciated Big Business. Lohan, however, does more than just play two wholly realized twins who are identical in terms of appearance and distinct in terms of personality.
Lohan plays twins who are pretending to be each other — and not doing it particularly well. Hallie and Annie, to be clear, are definitely amateur actors. Their disguises last only a few hours before their real identity is discovered by at least one adult (or, in Annie’s case, by a dog). On multiple occasions, Annie and Hallie break their accents, botch expected reactions, and lie clumsily. When these mistakes happen, Lohan has to let a little bit of Annie emerge from her Hallie disguise, or let Hallie emerge from Annie. Lohan, who is from Long Island, developed expert command over Annie's British accent and her spotty American accent, as well as Hallie's California accent and equally spotty British accent.
Miraculously, despite the multiple identity twists, The Parent Trap never becomes interchangeable twin soup. Thanks to Lohan’s nuanced performance, The Parent Trap transcended the gimmicky nature of its premise and became almost believable. It became a movie we can watch over and over again, childhood preserved in the amber of a film.
In a way, Lohan herself is preserved within the confines of the The Parent Trap, too. Her remarkable performance in her debut movie had very believable repercussions: She unsurprisingly skyrocketed to fame. After making the ultimate kids movie, she proceeded to star in the ultimate high school movies: Freaky Friday, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, and Mean Girls were all released within a year of each other. Starting in 2007, Lohan was more known for her life abroad, stints in rehab, or her job as spokeswoman of Lawyer.com than her roles as an every-girl like Annie and Hallie of The Parent Trap or Cady Heron of Mean Girls.
In The Parent Trap, Lohan exhibits a gleaming, undeniable talent — the kind of talent that indicates, no matter what, a story will follow. What's that if not (honorary) Oscar-worthy?