Opponents of divorce had a surprising new ally this summer: Hollywood.
Normally the champion of the follow-your-bliss world view, filmmakers suddenly rushed to the side of intact families, not unlike a caped superhero venturing forth to save the world.
First on the scene: uber family man Brad Pitt, whose character in World War Z quit a high-pressure job so he could spend more time with his wife and kids. While under pressure to resume his old job, even as the world is being consumed by the zombies, Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, retorts, “I will not leave my family” with a vehemence that even the undead could respect.
Of course it turns out that Lane does have to leave his family — temporarily — as saving the world sometimes demands. But the words, and the ferocity with which they were uttered, stood out among the otherwise bland dialogue of the film. It’s a mantra more parents should utter.
Then there was the astonishing festival film The Way, Way Back, which at times seems not so much as coming-of-age movie as a documentary made to discourage parents from contemplating divorce.
The film, which remains in theatres two months after its release, is about a 14-year-old boy enduring a summer vacation with his divorced mom and her new boyfriend. As is often the case in real life, divorce does not have a cameo role, but is a major player in everything that occurs.
One family-oriented review criticized the film’s “acceptability of divorce,” but in doing so, confused prevalence with acceptability. Divorce is everywhere in this film; it bludgeons not only the central character, but the families of his friends. But while the directors – one, a child of divorce – acknowledge the prevalence of divorce in the culture, they never condone it. Quite the contrary.
“It (the film) forcefully demonstrates the devastating effects of divorce on children as well as the damage caused by the absence of responsible adult care,” said Joseph McAleer, reviewing “The Way, Way Back” for the Catholic News Service.
In the movie, the divorces are not recent. The mothers have “moved on,” so to speak, and are building new lives. But their children still navigate around the cavernous hole which their fathers’ departure left.
In one poignant scene, two teens sit on the beach together, talking about the awkwardness of post-divorce phone calls from their dads, and the ever-present fear they sense in their mothers: the fear that the children might prefer to live with their fathers.
And what the mothers fear is right: The kids do want to live with their dads. They want fantasy lives, bereft of homework and chores, and to escape the ickiness of watching their mothers cavort with men who are not their dads. When these unfamiliar men talk about “becoming a family,” it only increases the kids’ longing for the families they once had, and for the time when a family vacation meant both Mom and Dad were there, and they didn’t have to scuttle back and forth between homes like ghost crabs. If Mom and Dad fight sometimes, it’s all right, because Mom and Dad fighting sure beats Mom and Guy-Who’s-Sleeping-With-My-Mom fighting, any day.
Hooray for Hollywood, that it gets this. Or at least, that some of Hollywood does.
The film industry has long championed strong single mothers. In animated films like Toy Story and Where the Wild Things Are, the dads are long gone, reduced to irrelevance, like the father of the cheetah cubs in African Cats. In these films, the absence of fathers is seen as an unavoidable pox of life, like middle school and acne, something that just makes you tough.
“Dads leave. No need to be a pussy about it,” says Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Ironman 3, which sounds like great advice until you realize that it emits from a narcissistic, juvenile playboy who saves the world, yes, but leaving a great deal of destruction as he goes about it. In fact, collapsing a child’s world, and then telling him to be a man about it, is one of the cruelest things divorcing parents can do.
In The Way, Way Back, the teen-aged Duncan stands in a stairwell and watches his mother fight with her boyfriend in the kitchen. Conspicuously placed over the boy’s shoulder is a poster with the words of John F. Kennedy Jr. : “One man can make a difference, and every man should try.”
Wise words, but not as wise as Yoda’s in “The Empire Strikes Back”: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
To stay together, stop “trying”, and repeat after “Z”: I will not leave my family.
I haven’t seen “World War Z,” but Brad Pitt is no poster boy for living up to his marriage vows. He dumped Jennifer Aniston with all the same lame excuses people who renege on their promises do these days and left a mountain of hurt in his wake. The fact that there were no children to also be hurt is a blessing, but it doesn’t mean he’s an “uber family man” to be admired and emulated. As far as I’m concerned, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are just another in a long line of couples building their happiness on the misery they inflicted on someone else. And come to think of it, when it came to keeping his marriage vows, John F. Kennedy wasn’t such a great role model, either. Not sure about Yoda.
Thank you so much for this comment. Your points are all well taken, and the editor of this piece and I discussed the Brad Pitt issue before it was posted, and made some tweaks because of the points you raise. I agree that “family man” was not the best term to describe someone who chose to raise kids outside of marriage, and that you can’t build true happiness atop another’s pain. I do separate Mr. Pitt from the characters he plays, and the guy he plays in World War Z is a man we can admire without reservation. (Very nice touch on the Yoda comment, by the way. Touche!)
Related .. the Huffington Post has a poignant roundup today of celebrity quotes about their parents’ divorces, and how the break-ups continue to affect them even as adults: