When I imagined the movie of my life, I never thought I would be portrayed by a teenage boy. Fifteen-year-old Dyllan Christopher—shaggy brown hair, amiable—plays the 15-year-old me—blond bob, watchful—in Unaccompanied Minors, a holiday comedy that opened on Friday. The film is based on a story I wrote several years ago for the public-radio program This American Life, in which I recalled the day after Christmas, 1988, on which my sister Betsy and I flew from our mother's house in Colorado to our father's in Michigan. We got stranded during a layover in Chicago, where a blizzard shut down O'Hare Airport. A stewardess escorted us to a drab room filled with dozens of other kids traveling alone—in airline parlance, "unaccompanied minors." This setting, where juice boxes littered the floor and boys in moon boots napped on winter parkas, becomes the jumping-off point for a kids' caper directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig. The movie borrows only the basic circumstances of our experience. The Hollywood version adds a villain, a band of pals, and Wilmer Valderrama. More subtly, it reveals that divorce is still an uneasy subject for a family film.
Earlier this month, Betsy and I flew out to the Los Angeles premiere together. In the movie, she and I became a brother and a sister—a Spencer and a Katherine—a number of drafts into the writing process. (Of which I was only a distant observer—I read each version as it was sent to me and gave earnest, clueless notes.) The thinking was that girls will go see movies about boys, but boys will not go see movies about girls. When I shared the news with my mother, an elementary-school teacher, I expected her to bemoan Hollywood's crass calculations. Instead, she told me that she often employs the same rule when selecting books for her students.
Outside of Grauman's Chinese Theater, Betsy and I stood on a corner of red carpet and looked for Shirley Temple's handprints. We'd spent hours on our family-room carpet watching kids' movies, so it seemed appropriate that we now had an association, of any kind, with the genre. As the movie started, I was surprise to find myself identifying not with my character, Spencer, but instead with his mother, who wrung her hands as she left her children at the airport terminal. At that moment, I felt the continental gap between me and my own son, who'd remained at home in New York with my husband. Minutes later, Spencer and Katherine arrived at the "UM" room, where a kid named Charlie was conducting a survey about why everyone was there. "So, what about you two," he asked them. "Divorce or Judaism?" Oh, right, I thought. Divorce.
The story I wrote for This American Life hinged on divorce—"the saddest thing that had ever happened in life" was how I put it. But what plays well on public radio doesn't always cut it at the multiplex. In the movie, divorce has less prominent placement. Speaking to the audience at an Unaccompanied Minors advance screening in Chicago, This American Life host Ira Glass asked director Feig to talk about the studio's rationale for minimizing divorce, and Feig (whose sensitive, inventive draft of the screenplay addressed the subject) explained that there was an expectation that a family holiday movie be both broadly appealing and not a downer.
That seems reasonable. Divorce is a downer in a Christmas movie because it's a downer at Christmas in life. What surprised me was that we were having the conversation at all. The gloomy prognosis of Judith Wallerstein's The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce has been partially supplanted by E. Mavis Hetherington's more equivocal For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. Two years ago, Newsweek even ran a story called "Happy Divorce," about exes who spend holidays together so their kids don't have to travel. In this climate, my This American Life story seemed quaint—a period piece about an '80s buzzword like "latchkey kids." So, I was taken aback that divorce could still be taboo. I felt a touch of the burn-cheeked righteous anger of my ninth-grade year, when I had a teacher who often referred to "kids from broken homes."