Hollywood loves the widower as romantic lead. Clive Owen’s character in the Boys are Back promises a trifecta cliché: he cared for his wife when she had cancer, he parents their small child, and he has no idea how to do laundry.
I can see the screenwriters salivating: enter the beautiful divorcee with a kid the same age, cue music, and as the sun sets we know closure’s been reached.
And no one really expects a movie to hit it on the head when discussing an issue like losing a partner and raising a child amid the stress and numbness of grief.
But as a young widow who parented under strikingly similar conditions, I can testify that The Boys Are Back (based on a memoir by Simon Carr) gets it right. The pictures are not pretty: man and boy alternate between fisticuffs and catatonia. House goes to pot. Cooking is neglected, alcohol abused.
As I did, Joe faces competing grievers (his mother in law, trying so hard to be good) and dense supervisors who call him “brave” but do, by God, expect him to travel. By beautiful, unvarnished images of the light and empty bottles littering our mourning household we know Joe’s isolation. The images are real and speak of the gritty abysses and sparkling appreciation we feel in grief.
And the man finds his way. Largely as I did: by watching his child. We see Owen’s unshaven visage as the light glints on water, as his son makes and enjoys unspeakable messes with the pure delight a child keeps, even in the darkest times. In the theater, some around me said they couldn’t believe the way the son reacted to his mother’s impending death. But I can certify that Nicholas McAnulty as Artie, spacey and intense two mintues apart, demonstrates authentic, age-appropriate response to loss.
In the Boys are Back it’s palpable, even at the end, that the boys’ loss doesn’t go away or even lessen. Father and sons (yes, there’s a subplot) never lose sight of what has left the world -- and they know they’ve been cast out, each alone. But fighting turns to horseplay, the washing gets done, and it’s implied that after some time, the boys might consume a vegetable or two.
Their contempt for the ways of the world turns into a playful disrespect for the rules that don’t work after serious shit goes down. We know the man will find joy again, but the film doesn’t take the easy way out by giving him the blonde just under his nose, at least not yet. The movie’s not perfect, it stacks up twists and promised near-endings in the last third as they always do, perhaps to justify the screenwriter’s pay. It’s not something I understand, though I do always roll my eyes.
But as a widow with a young child, I not only felt validated by, but appreciated the perspective given by The Boys Are Back. I don’t get out much, but I’ve never seen such a sensitive portrayal of fatherhood. It’s a nice break from the usual romantic widows and widowers (cured by love!) of Sleepless in Seattle and One Fine Day. I wonder how the film will play to men. I have no idea how it can be marketed.
There are as many ways through grief as there are through any other challenge of growth, or of parenting. I wonder if those who see it will feel more compassion and less fear of those of us who’ve come so close to falling with our partners. I’d love to hear what the widowers think of the movie.
The Boys Are Back provides a refreshing view of fatherhood and a realistic glimpse into the world of a grieving family.
More from parenting