Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Written by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers
Directed by Spike Jonze
To be a child is to be overwhelmed. I often think back to my own messy childhood and feel pangs of regret that my way of thinking was so warped by Christian-conservative ideologues for parents that I just don’t have some of the same experiences that many of my peers did. However, I believe all children struggle with how to process their emotions. Some have good supportive parents, while others have parents who model terrible behavior. The key difference has always been a parent who can say they are sorry to their child, which my parents could not and still can’t do. The parent who does that, who can shrug off the ego, understanding that “sorry” will help shape their child into a kind person, does something revolutionary. Where the Wild Things Are is about the tension, that moment of growth from being self-centered to understanding the experiences & feelings of others.
Max (Max Records) is a young boy working through a confusing time. His sister is now a teen and not interested in playing the way they used to. His parents are divorced, and his mom (Catherine Keener) is dating again. Emotions overflow into frustration as Max acts out, unsure of his own mind & body. This results in him biting his mom one night before dinner and running away. Max comes across a small sailboat, and the winds carry him to an island inhabited by seven large monsters. He comes across Carol (James Gandolfini), who has a temper tantrum about his friend KW (Lauren Ambrose) leaving the group. Max manages to convince these creatures he’s their king and goes about playing and roughhousing with them. Eventually, the boy helps Carol construct his dream project, but conflicts among the monsters create impediments to that task. Max begins to see himself and the people he loves in the monsters’ behaviors and grows in his empathy.
This is James Gandolfini’s best film. Carol is not too far removed from Tony Soprano, both hot-headed & impulsive monsters. However, Carol is a way to teach children how not to become like Tony and possibly remind many adults about the need for understanding and empathy. Spike Jonze does not soften the intensity of the source material, and translating it into a live-action film makes some of the scary elements of the book even more frightening.
This was my second viewing of the picture, and I think I got much more out of this time around than the first. I was 28, seeing it for the first time, and almost 41 now. That time has made all the difference in the world. I’ve come to a place where I can reflect on my parents and other adults and realize they are not so far removed from the emotional literacy of Max. Life is confusing and scary, which comes out as an angry reaction. So often, the system causes us to see ourselves in isolation, that we have no one on our side. A lack of maturity supports that thinking, but as you grow, you see that almost everyone thinks the same thing and is wrong. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and all the broken ways of thinking come from the same place: believing there is a limited amount of some precious emotional resource in the world like love or happiness. It’s so wrong-headed and so brutally destructive. It is very advantageous for those seeking to exploit us to keep people in emotional immaturity. The more we explode on other confused, lonely people, the longer it takes to realize what keeps us in this state of frantic anger & fear.
There’s nothing wrong with being angry, but how we direct that anger and at whom makes all the difference in the world. So much in this world is worthy of our anger, our rage. The planet is collapsing, and no one in charge seems concerned about staving it off. Weapons of war are manufactured at break-neck speed and dumped on people trying to survive. The disparity between those who have and those who do not has expanded to an intolerable chasm. I’m not one to suggest violence isn’t the answer to some problems; there are times when the vulnerable are so oppressed, stomped on by a cold, unfeeling authority that violence is the only reasonable response. However, among each other, working people who don’t hold power, it is our responsibility to empathize with each other, especially because the children are watching. The children learn from what we stand up for and what we cower away from. Lashing out at someone because you feel overwhelmed happens, but if we don’t learn from the consequences of our actions and see that person we have harmed as someone struggling just we are, then Earth will become a planet of rampaging wild things, unmoored and tearing away at every shred of what gives life value.