May 27, 2010

World's Greatest Dad

Two scenes are striking in Bobcat Goldwaithe's World's Greatest Dad (2009).

THE FIRST is the scene where Lance Clayton, a beleaguered middle-age writer-cum-high school poetry teacher (Robin Williams) finds his strangled son, dead in his bedroom. The scene is doubly jarring for the viewer because, one, the first fifteen minutes of the film deliberately sets you up to despise the kid (Daryl Sabara, played with an acute douchebag factor). Kyle curses like a sailor, looks at scat porn, calls girls at school whores, proudly glorifies his own insouciant stupidity, uses his dad and his best friend Andrew to his own benefit, and is pretty much openly non-repentant about his deeds -- to the point of rebuffing every ounce of care his dad, Lance, has to offer.

Second, is the cause of the boy's death (basically he dies via auto-eroticism). Go figure. Goldwaithe goes through extensive pains to make sure you absolutely hate this kid -- but at the same time -- when he is found in his bedroom, despite the embarrassing circumstances -- the viewer feels for Lance and the grief over his dull, insipid son. Even a douchebag son's death elicits authentic catharsis. Wow. I don't think I've seen this in cinema in a long time. I think this is partly due to Williams' engaging performance. Williams is an actor who can make you identify with the absurd. Think of The Night Listener, for example (which has eerie parallels to this film). The entirely silent soliqouy of finding the dead boy, checking to see if he is alive, releasing him from his makeshift noose, and mourning over his dead body was a genuine cathartic moment.


Not to go too much into the plot of the story, basically to say, Lance, a would-be writer, uses Kyle's death, as a ploy to achieve recognition as a writer. The bulk of the film plays out Lance's rise to fame, including a publication of the boy's suicide note and journal (all created by Lance in a feverish creative, desperate attempt). The central meat of the film plays out the fame factor surrounding a mysterious teenager's death. With the publication of Kyle's thoughts, everyone in the microcosm of the American High School feels complicit and ashamed that he killed himself, not knowing the ludicrous nature behind his death (which makes it ironic, by the way).

The storyline touches on the ephemeral nature of people in general to somehow gravitate towards the fascinating but somehow fail to lose sight of the authentic. I kept thinking, so what, what's the point of this film? What's going on here? I have to say I struggled through the middle part of the film and I am sure most do not wade through the rest of it to find out what it's really all about. One reviewer on Netflix (by the way, the film is available on instant watching) blatantly said the film was pointless and she could not stomach crude language and vile sexual innuendo. I was one of those tenacious viewers who stuck it out till the end (*pats self on back*).

I think the point of the film is played out in the film's final moments. Lance cannot keep his secret to himself, that he is basically a phony (and as Glenn Whipp for the Los Angeles Times has pointed out, every adult in this film is a phony). By creating a world he thinks he wants, writer's fame, the girl of his dreams, a published book, recognition of being "the world's greatest dad" and all that stuff sarcastically become quite meaningless for Lance. But Lance's epiphany is not the real point of the film.

The film is about friendship. The scene after Lance declares himself a phony, and everyone realizes that Kyle was not a genius, misunderstood boy who left behind a legacy of brilliant thoughts, Lance feels liberated from the charade, charges into the high school pool, takes off his clothes, dives into the water, and for a brief few cinematic seconds we get to see Robin Williams in the buff. Everyone say, "OOOOHHHH." Even here, I was thinking, "OK, so what?"

But, it's in the film's final moments that I got it. The movie is not about Kyle. Nor is it about famous Kyle. Nor is it about high school, adolescence, hypocrisy, or any of that. It is not even about whether or not Lance should have done what he did (I think Goldwaithe leaves this ethical conundrum to the viewer). The film is about relationships. Lance did not have a relationship with his son. Nor, did he have a real relationship with his girlfriend, Claire (Alexie Gilmore), the blithe, but fame driven, art teacher at the school. At the film's end, we are not meant to "hooray" at his brash attempt to fool the world, but rather, we are meant to relate to a very human need: to belong.

Only two other characters in the film journey with Lance full circle even though Lance dumps them both in the film (of course they reunite at the film's end: WHICH IS THE POINT). The first friend was Kyle's only friend, Andrew, (played charmingly by Evan Martin) who all along knew that Lance created a false Kyle. The other is the neighbor (Mitzie McCall), Bonnie, who shares pot brownies with Lance and becomes a reliable friend (despite her penchant for hoarding stuff and her quirky, extreme introversion). It's funny. The film is really about their relationship: Andrew, Lance and the next door neighbor.

So, go watch the film, and let me know, in the comments below, if I am right. What do you think?

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