Long before my own parents separated, I could recite the movie Bye Bye Love by heart. My best friend growing up had parents who were divorced, and we’d huddle together in her living room and watch the 1995 dramedy again and again, sometimes multiple viewings over the course of a single sleepover, and she’d cry and I’d feel a vague kind of impersonal sadness and the next weekend we’d repeat the whole strange routine.
Divorce movies are a very particular genre and one that’s hard to categorize. They’re often wearing the costume of rom-com (Along Came Polly) or children’s movie (All I Want For Christmas) or good old-fashioned comedy (War of the Roses). But to me, any movie about divorce is a divorce movie, plain and simple. Let me be clear here: whether it’s your parents, your grandparents, your sibling, a close friend, or you who’s getting divorced, there is nothing that is going to make you feel better. Your life will never be the same. Don’t misunderstand, you will adjust – I promise – but all you can do in the meantime is wait. And so while you’re waiting, a divorce movie is a great way to pass the time. Added bonus: you’ll probably laugh and cry.
Bye Bye Love
The Basics: This is one of the more obvious “divorce movies” in the canon. The story centers around three divorced guys adjusting to life after marriage. They all have kids and much of the humor and sadness comes from watching these fathers try (and often fail) to create a new family dynamic. While the movie itself got so-so reviews, the cast can only be described as quintessential 90’s all-star: Paul Reiser, Matthew Modine, Randy Quaid, Janeane Garofalo, Eliza Dushku, Rob Reiner, Mae Whitman, that kid from Sleepless in Seattle who later played Claudia’s boyfriend on Party of Five… but I digress.
When to Watch: If you’re a kid with divorced parents who splits her time or a divorced parent navigating joint custody, this movie will most certainly feel relatable. But I’d actually put this movie at the top of my list for anyone touched by divorce. The fact that it’s an ensemble cast means you’ll get to spend time with all different kinds of divorced families and the moments of genuine humor and raw, painful emotion are very well balanced.
Kramer vs. Kramer
The Basics: The most serious and critically acclaimed (five Oscars!) movie on my list, Kramer vs. Kramer is a 1979 drama about divorce and its effect on one family: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and their young son. When Meryl’s character walks out on her workaholic husband, he is forced to raise his son alone until she returns a year and a half later demanding custody. While that may sound grim, the movie is absolutely riveting as well as emotionally poignant. The famous scene of Dustin Hoffman attempting to make his son French toast in the wake of the mother’s abandonment is one you’ll never get out of your head. And of course the performances are out of this world amazing.
When to Watch: During any period of adjustment after a sudden divorce or change in the family arrangements. More than anything, this movie is a testament to the power of time to heal wounds and create new traditions, dynamics, and a new sense of family. While Kramer vs. Kramer is certainly not a light and fluffy movie, the underlying message is absolutely one of hope and positivity. Hang in there, it seems to be saying. It’s all going to be okay.
The Basics: Bear with me, because I’ll admit this is not a movie I’d recommend willy nilly to just anyone. It’s incredibly silly and flawed and full of obviously mockable moments. That said, it’s one of the only movies I’ve seen that tackles the issue of parents who have been divorced for years rediscovering each other AND how that kind of change can affect the children of divorce. The premise goes: Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin have been divorced for ten years, he’s remarried, she’s not. They each start having an affair… with each other! And so on from there.
When to Watch: If you’re lucky (?) enough to be in a situation like Meryl’s where you and your long-estranged husband suddenly find each other irresistible again, you’ll probably enjoy this movie. But – and more interestingly to me – this would also be a good one to watch if you are an adult child of divorce. Whether you wish your parents would get back together or feel everything worked out the way it should, It’s Complicated is an interesting thought experiment as to how you’d actually feel if it happened. The kids in this movie have a very strong reaction when they find out their parents are seeing each other again, and it wasn’t what I was expecting.
The Basics: This rip-roaring 1993 comedy was one of my favorites long before I had any personal experience with divorce. Certainly one of the funniest movies of all time (in my humble opinion as well as that of the American Film Institute), Mrs. Doubtfire tempers the sadness of divorce with a ridiculous premise. Robin Williams, desperate to spend time with his children after wife Sally Field divorces him, transforms himself into an elderly housekeeper and takes a job working in the house. Hilarity (truly) ensues. But of course, under all those hijinks and that silly accent, there’s the deeply emotional truth of a man who will do anything to be near his kids.
When to Watch: Anytime you want to enjoy yourself thoroughly for two hours. Particularly if you’re a kid whose parents are in the process of divorcing and you wish you had more time with one or both parents. But what I love most about this movie is that despite Robin Williams’ successful efforts to make himself a better husband and father, he and Sally Field (SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!!) do not end up getting back together. Supposedly, the original script had them ending up together and it was changed so as not to give children of divorce false hope. As depressing as that is, I think they made the right choice. Everything works out okay at the end of this movie, which is not to say the family is back together. Rather, they’ve found a new way of being a family, post-divorce.
Now and Then
The Basics: By far the least obvious “divorce movie” on this list, Now and Then is really a movie about female friendship. Four women return to their hometown as adults and reminisce about the summer they were twelve. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, but I don’t think anyone other than me would describe it as a movie about divorce. The reason I’m including it is one of the four girls, played in adulthood by Demi Moore and in childhood by the inimitable Gaby Hoffmann, has parents who are divorcing in the flashbacks, which take place in 1970. At the time, divorce was extremely uncommon and as a result, Gaby’s character is embarrassed and secretive about both the divorce itself and her mother’s consequent strange behavior.
When to Watch: If your parents are divorcing or separating or just fighting a lot and you’d rather not think about it, let alone talk about it with your friends, this is a good movie for you. The divorce in this movie is barely a subplot; it’s given the lightest stroke of attention. But it’s handled delicately, realistically, and emotionally. As a result, the image of Gaby and her little sister watching their father drive off in the middle of the night haunts me far more than the many obviously-creepy graveyard scenes and seances.
These movies aren’t going to give you answers to why divorce is happening to you or around you. You aren’t going to come away with a solution or scheme that will surely make everything go back to the way it was. “Before” is gone, and the “after” sometimes takes awhile to settle in. I still don’t feel like I’m in the “after” of my parents’ divorce, and it’s been years. Of course, if you want your catharsis cheery, uplifting, and entirely unrealistic, you can watch either version of The Parent Trap, where the kids get what they want, the parents reunite, and everything is okay. But maybe sometimes it’s better to realize that there are many ways for things to work out okay in the end, even if it’s not the way you wish it could be.