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?

Unaccompanied Minors. Click image to expand.
Unaccompanied Minors

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.

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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."

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.

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.