Can you mention divorce in a kids' movie?

What really happened.
Dec. 13 2006 3:40 PM

The Lost Baggage of Unaccompanied Minors

Can you mention divorce in a kids' movie?

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Of course, there are plenty of divorce movies—from last year's acclaimed The Squid and the Whale, to Irreconcilable Differences, an early Nancy Meyers film Betsy and I watched repeatedly on HBO, to Kramer vs. Kramer, Hollywood's precedent-setting verdict on the subject: Divorce is wrenching to live in and to watch. But as far as movies specifically for kids, the list isn't easy to make. Lots of them deal with the subject obliquely: You can read even E.T. as a divorce movie. But the touchstone remains The Parent Trap, an adaptation of a 1949 novel about trying to reunite divorced parents. In Unaccompanied Minors, divorce is a pre-existing condition, not an illness to be remedied; there's no fantasy of a fix. The kids are trying to save Christmas, not their parents' marriages. "Maybe none of our families were meant to be together," Spencer says, quietly acceptant.

Spencer is the kid most affected by divorce. He takes a few jabs at the inattentions of his eco-geek workaholic dad, whom he tenderly forgives at the end of the film. One confessional sequence among the kids, via walkie-talkie, features explicit talk about families, but home life isn't really the movie's point. There are adventures to be had—like tumbling through a colossal luggage sorter—and Lewis Black to outwit. While divorce may be secondary in the film, the portrait that does emerge is touching—and, importantly, not a cartoon. Spencer and Katherine's parents, for instance, actually manage their anger, and nobody trash-talks stepmoms.

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Movie critics have different takes on the film's treatment of divorce: To one, the story is "blatantly pitched at the children of divorce"; to another, "it's clear … that Warner Bros. wanted less a thoughtful movie about divorce … than a cheerful family pick-me-up." Is there a way to make a bittersweet divorce movie for kids without sinking them into depression? There should be, because even in its sadness, divorce contains its own epiphanies. Here's how the story ended in real life: In the middle of the night, Betsy and I were taken to the airport hotel, where we shared a room with another unaccompanied minor—a girl with glittery-rimmed glasses—and a flight attendant who wore control-top stockings as pajama bottoms. The girl asked if I would sleep in one of the two beds with her, "so I won't have to sleep with the stewardess," and I agreed. That's where the tale wound up, with my betrayal of my little sister and the realization that I relied on her as much as she had on me.

Now, years later, at the post-premiere party, I stuck by Betsy's side. A giant room in a mall complex was done up like an airport, down to the baggage screening equipment out front and the first-class lounge area inside. Betsy thought she saw the girl who plays Ari's daughter on Entourage. Ira Glass noted the inexplicable presence of porn star Ron Jeremy. "Wilmer Valderrama to the service desk," someone announced jokingly over the P.A., as Betsy and I leaned in for photographs with the kids who played "us." It was our own cheerful, pick-me-up ending.