Divorce and Parenting in the Big Apple

By Justin Frost




What Maisie Knew (2012), Dir: Scott McGehee and David Siegel, US, 99 minutes

Cast: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgaard, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham, Steve Coogan

 The Squid and the Whale (2005), Dir: Noah Baumbach, US, 81 minutes

Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline

 Kramer vs Kramer (1979), Dir: Robert Benton, US, 105 minutes

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander


“Love: the quest. Marriage: the conquest. Divorce: the inquest.”                                                           

Helen Rowland, A Guide to Men, 1922


 Journalist and humorist Helen Rowland’s droll one liner adeptly sums up the stages of a relationship. Hopefully the final leg of the journey is one to be avoided but if so inquest seems wryly apt. What is divorce other than an inquest, a round of questions (internal and external) and events replayed all in search of an increasingly elusive answer. Rowland had a long affiliation with New York World newspaper. Coincidentally the films I intend to look at take place on her old stomping ground, Manhattan and Brooklyn to be precise. The following films each illustrate the impact of divorce not only on the couple but the family unit as a whole.


What Maisie Knew (2012) is a loose adaptation of Henry James’s 1897 novel relocated from Victorian London to modern day Manhattan. James’s novel is a sardonic critique of a society he deemed to have fallen into ethical decline. This update removes some narrative threads and is played as a straight drama with no overarching critique. Most importantly it retains events being filtered solely through Maisie’s eyes giving us a perceptive, moving account of divorce from a child’s perspective.

Six year old Maisie (Aprile) becomes caught in the middle of a vicious custody battle between rock star Susanna (Moore, fiery but brittle) and art dealer Beale (Coogan). Raised voices behind closed doors soon lead to changed locks and court dates. Susanna and Beale both quickly remarry to bartender Lincoln (Skarsgaard) and nanny Margot (Vanderham). They too are drawn into what amounts to a game where Maisie is the pawn and her welfare second to her parent’s bruised egos.

Maisie has everything but nothing. She appears lost within the cityscape (literally at one point) and the luxurious properties her parents own. Their busy careers mean that she misses out on valuable developmental time with them. A true, natural bond does not exist. Susanna displays a smothering type of love. Gifts are bought to make up for time apart. It’s clear she cares for her daughter but moments between them are fleeting and Maisie has to fit in around a chaotic lifestyle. Beale is an absent father, abroad for most of the film. In one scene he talks to Maisie about moving to London with him but halfway through the conversation awkwardly retracts the idea realising that logistically this would not be feasible.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel insert a number of reoccurring shots of Maisie waiting. Be it apartment lobbies or school her life becomes one of waiting and being shuttled back and forth with no stability or routine. Once delivered any quality time is spent with the new spouses who inadvertently become surrogate parents.

Ironically it is through these tactical marriages of convenience (Susanna states to Maisie “I married him for you” regarding Lincoln) that Maisie finds the nurturing she so desperately seeks. Lincoln’s relationship with Maisie (which provokes a jealous streak in Susanna) is particularly touching as he is clearly not a natural with children. With Lincoln and Margot time isn’t an issue. Maisie receives the love and stability that she craves. Trips to the park, help with her homework, playing board games, all the small but essential things are now possible. With this set up borne out of unusual circumstances she has found a family unit. The final shot of Maisie excitedly running to catch a boat for a day trip is one of marked contrast to earlier scenes where she appears quiet and withdrawn.

 The Squid and the Whale (2005), is a Brooklyn comedy drama set in the 1980’s from writer director Noah Baumbach based on his own parents divorce. Middle class couple Bernard (Daniels, hilariously deluded) and Joan (Linney) settle on joint custody and announce their divorce at a family conference to teenage son Walt (Eisenberg, the Baumbach surrogate) and younger brother Frank (Kline). Baumbach successfully traverses a fine line between comedy and tragedy aided by the carefully etched relationships of the four principals that all ring true.

The opening doubles tennis match perfectly encapsulates the family dynamic: Bernard and Walt versus Joan and Frank. As the film progresses we witness how each parent’s personality has informed on them. Additionally for the boys, one going through adolescence and one on the cusp, it raises deeper questions for them about relationships as they witness their parent’s marriage disintegrate.

Bernard is a steely academic who had earlier literary success but now teaches. He names Franz Kafka as one of his predecessors demonstrating the esteemed company he holds himself in. Walt hangs on his every word and considers him the writer of the family despite. He is dismissive of Joan despite her recent success and believes that his father hasn’t got the recognition he deserves. Like his father, lesser known works by the likes of Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald are dismissed as “minor” such is the cultural prejudice he has taken on from Bernard. When student Lilli (Anna Paquin) moves into Bernard’s new home Frank says to Joan that Walt and Bernard are attracted to her. Joan quips “So they like the same women now as well”. Bernard poisons Walt against Joan by nonchalantly mentioning affairs she had giving no wider context as to why.

It is clear that Bernard has lofty ambitions for both his sons but soon realises Frank has no interest in following in his father’s footsteps. When asking him what he wants to do he replies a tennis coach like slacker Ivan (William Baldwin). Frank has Joan’s even hand in his views and acceptance of people and doesn’t think twice about questioning grandiose or deliberately inflammatory statements Bernard makes. Due to these differences joint custody doesn’t exactly go to plan and Walt and Frank end up living with the parent they best relate to.

The Squid and the Whale also functions as a coming of age film with the tensions between Bernard and Joan spilling over into the boy’s lives. Frank isolates himself and begins drinking. He experiments with a new found curiosity towards sex that manifests itself worryingly with activities that should be kept to his bedroom and not during school hours. Walt starts dating Sophie (Haley Feiffer, an uncanny likeness of a young Linney). He takes advice from Bernard who suggests he “play the field” and implies that she will do for the time being. When they split up Walt regrets his actions and we finally see a chink in his armour. He goes to Joan for guidance her maternal instinct and desire to connect providing a healthy antidote to Bernard’s cool, arrogant nature.

The films we have looked at thus far feature couples jockeying for position but Robert Benton’s Oscar winning Kramer vs Kramer (1979) takes a different approach. The majority of the film is a two hander about learning to be a parent and the rewards that this brings. Mother Joanna (Streep) leaves advertising exec Ted (Hoffman) in the opening scene and returns for the final court room section.

To begin with Ted is out of his depth. His career has taken precedent over his family life and he is unsure how to deal with Billy’s (Henry) emotional needs and carries on as if nothing has changed. Photos and all trace of Joanna are removed from the apartment. Running a household provides another challenge. Billy has to point him in the right direction as to what to buy during a trip to the supermarket. The first morning father and son are alone Ted adds too much coffee to the pot and burns Billy’s French toast. This scene is neatly contrasted later on when father and son get up, casually pour themselves juice and coffee and sit at perfect ease simultaneously reading the papers.

The most satisfying aspect of Kramer vs Kramer is the characters capacity to learn, rationalise and evolve. Ted becomes a parent in front of our eyes. Be it helping Billy learn lines for his school play, making Xmas decorations or teaching him how to ride a bike, Ted is there for him and becomes a better man for it. What could come off as TV movie of the week territory succeeds due to the chemistry between Hoffman and Henry which is pure and relatable. Ted also comes to realise the error of his ways during a candid discussion with Billy where he takes responsibility for the demise of his marriage saying to Billy “For a long time now I’ve kept trying to make her be a certain kind of person, a certain kind of wife that I thought she was supposed to be and she just wasn’t like that”.

The film came to be recognised as a cultural touchstone in an era when gender roles in parenting were shifting. At the custody hearing Ted notes that Joanna use to say “Why can’t a woman have the same ambitions as a man”. “By the same token I’d like to know what law is it that says that a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex?”. The amicable solution reached by the Kramers in the films wonderfully simple final scene dismisses notions of gender in parenting and scores to be settled from the past. It’s not about them anymore. It’s Billy.



Justin Frost is a Solent University Film Studies graduate. Topics of interest in this field include the 1960’s British New Wave and the films of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Mike Leigh. He lives in Devon and when not witnessing the decline of the nation first hand as a Civil Servant enjoys nothing better than fine conversation on culture, politics and football at his local over a pint. Other material can be found at his blog Reverse Zoom. He really should write more often.