Watched a beautiful little film recently titled For Ellen that made me cry more than any movie has in 20 years.
It stars Paul Dano, who played that irritating preacher kid Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood and it’s the kind of role that makes you want to hug the actor.
For Ellen is written and directed by Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim and she tells the story of deadbeat dad Joby Taylor (Dano) who basically blackmails his ex-wife into letting him see his daughter for the first time.
Nothing much happens in the film; it is glacially paced but the subject matter drew me in for obvious reasons.
Joby is not a particularly sympathetic character but he just broke my heart. What was left of it was then obliterated by first-time child actress Shaylena Mandigo, playing six-year-old Ellen.
I can’t put it better than US film critic Roger Ebert who writes:
The centerpiece of the film is a simple and perfect scene in which [Joby is] allowed to spend two hours with Ellen. Played by non-professional Shaylena Mandigo, Ellen emerges as a clear-eyed, utterly serious, instinctively tactful little girl. Joby has given her a doll. She confides she already has it. They go to a mall to find a replacement, and then, in a food court, they have a conversation that is a model of perfection for such a scene.
A curious thing becomes clear. Ellen becomes aware that Joby is not a “father” or even really an “adult.” He is like a child who is lost and sad. She says quiet and very understated words of comfort. How child actors do it, I cannot understand, but sometimes there is not an atom of falsity or self-consciousness in their performances.
For Ellen concludes in an unexpected way that seals Joby’s fear that he has no idea who he is, or where he wants to go. It doesn’t matter. He has been cut adrift from all roles and identities. He is a clueless void.
At one point Ellen asks Joby why he didn’t come to see her before now and he waffles on about his heavy metal band and a record deal and his desire to succeed as a musician.
“I wanted to make it so bad,” says Joby.
“Have you made it?” asks Ellen.
This interaction somewhat explains why Joby has not been present as a father, but it’s the final third of the movie that articulates why so many men cut all contact with their kids: It hurts too much.
I’m in no way defending dads who refuse to support their children or disappear from their lives, because it’s something I could or would never do.
But I understand the impulse. I know how lacerating a relationship measured in hours a week can be. It’s a scab ripped open every time you drop them off.
I get why some men would chose not to go there. It’s just easier. If you don’t see them, there’s nothing to miss, the memories will dull, they become an abstraction.
Interestingly, there’s not been a whole lot of study done on this subject.
In his 2004 report for the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Parent–Child Contact and Post-Separation Parenting Arrangements Bruce Smyth notes: “Not a great deal is known about paternal disengagement and its correlates. Indeed only a handful of studies has directly examined why many fathers lose contact with their children after divorce. None of these has been conducted in Australia.”
Smyth did however identify “nine key themes” for parents in the little or no contact groups:
(1) limited parenting skills;
(4) fathers’ perceptions of being cut out;
(5) the psychology of disengagement;
(6) “the system” as a barrier to contact;
(7) the “shallowness” of sporadic contact;
(8) other forms of contact; and
(9) children’s adjustment.
Smyth quotes a 1994 study of British and Canadian “deadbeat dads” that found many men disengaged from their children for structural reasons as listed above (distance, repartnering) but also “psychological factors” including “grief, loss, role ambiguity, a sense of unfairness, concern about the potentially negative impact of divorce on children, the perception of becoming a ‘visitor’, and the ‘pain of visits – their brevity, artificiality, and superficiality’.”
“Unable to tolerate the idea of the loss of their children, but given little expectation for success and what many consider to be a highly adversarial means to try to prevent the loss (which they believe will seriously harm their children), they gradually disengage from their children’s lives.”
This research, notes Smyth, paints a picture of “Defeated Dads”, as opposed to “Deadbeat Dads”.
He goes on to quote a 1998 US study that concludes:
“Many of the fathers interviewed felt that everything about the divorce, especially anything concerning the way the children were raised, was completely out of their control … they were on the outside looking in.
“Many were extremely embittered that society demanded that they still assume the responsibilities of parenthood. As they saw it, society, the legal system, and their ex-wives had conspired to rip asunder their connection to their children … Overwhelmingly it was these disempowered, embittered, despairing fathers who were the ones who discontinued contact with and support of their children.
“In each case, something profound happened to them to make these formerly responsible fathers disengage. Their paternal urges were thwarted. They were somehow made to feel, either by the legal system or perhaps their ex-wives, that they had no real role to play in their children’s lives.
“A better, more accurate label for them might be ‘Driven Away Dads’.”
Now, there’s a headline you won’t see on the front page of a newspaper.