(spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I do discuss the ending)
I’ve never read the book – not as a child, not to my own children. But ever since the previews for Where the Wild Things Are began playing on TV, I’ve been strangely drawn to the movie. I finally went to see it this past Friday and it has stayed with me in a way that few movies do.
First of all, there’s no denying that Max, the unruly, imaginative, emotional little boy in the film reminded me of my own little wild child, Cameron. It’s not that Cameron was just like that or that our family life had the same dynamic. It’s more that, for me, Max’s adventure played up the hurts of childhood as felt by a child and touched that emotional chord in me that still feels my own son’s pain even now, more than five years after his death.
Max’s mother is, most of the time, sweetly loving and displays extreme patience – a skill I never mastered to any degree. She listens to Max’s hurts and helps him clean up his messes. Even when she’s stressed by work, she takes the time to really listen to Max, to encourage his imaginative storytelling rather than brushing him off. She is the mother I wish I would or could have been. The only time we see her snap is when Max begins acting out in front of her new boyfriend. While she seems to love Max unconditionally when they are alone, she’s embarrassed by what her company will think. This is more like the mother I was. How many times I felt that sinking what-will-the-neighbors-think feeling when Cameron acted out in ways that were out of control. Max’s out-of-control behavior escalates into a rage and culminates with him biting his mother then running away. Cameron’s rage took him much farther away from me, into the self-destruction of addiction and a land of no return.
In Max’s running away fantasy, he goes to an island where the wild things are. He meets larger-than-life characters who mirror his outer circumstances and his inner responses. There’s one who smashes things in anger, just like Max; there’s another who feels unheard and wonders if anyone even knows he’s there, just like Max; there’s a mushy couple always wanting to kiss each other, just like Max’s mother and her boyfriend; there’s one who took off and abandoned the others to be with her new friends, just like Max’s big sister. This imaginative inner landscape is just like Max’s life – except that here, Max gets to be king. He sets out to create a place where only good things happen. He learns that it is a much more difficult job than he imagined.
Eventually he realizes he must say goodbye to his wild anger and sadness. He chooses to leave the land of the wild things and return to his imperfect home. The reunion scene with his mother is touching and heartbreaking all at the same time. It is a poignant, wordless mix of relief, forgiveness, acceptance and love – a true homecoming in every sense. Oh, that every little boy could feel such love.
To me, the film is a beautiful depiction of what we must learn if we are to grow up. And what we must learn if we are to heal our own grief. We all sometimes travel to where the wild things are. We live in a messy world where bad things happen. We get hurt and scared and angry. And we must learn not to squash or kill all those crazy things we’re feeling, but to befriend them and to rule them benevolently. Ultimately we must learn that however big and real and hairy those feelings are, love is always stronger and love is always waiting to welcome us home.
As always, I welcome your coments here or by email (Claire@DeepWaterLeafSociety.com)
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