Two months before Where the Wild Things Are was released in theaters, I packed everything I could fit from my Brooklyn apartment into a rented SUV, and made my way down to Virginia to live with my long-distance girlfriend. It was surprising how much of my stuff could fit into a Ford Explorer. All I left behind was my twin bed, my desk, and the shelves I bought off the two burly Russian men who ran the suspiciously empty baby store below us.
The trailer for the film had been out for a little while by this time, and I had fallen for it completely. There was no question I was its target audience: an aimless twenty-something, full of premature nostalgia, and a need to be told that everything will turn out fine. I had been depressed, and, when I met my girlfriend, I had found hope. In a dumb, absurdly sentimental way, that trailer echoed how I felt; how I always wanted to feel. I felt good, and it was good, and everything from my childhood was as good as I remembered it.
A few weeks before the movie was released, my girlfriend told me she might be pregnant. We had been living together for a month, in a one-and-a-half bedroom apartment, with a roommate. Our plan had been to save up some money in Virginia and then use it to move back to Los Angeles, where she was from. I was working at Home Depot and she was working in a mall photo studio. We were happy together, but it wasn’t a situation that was ready-made for a baby, and we both knew it.
But, what you know and what you feel are two different things, and being in love, especially a love that is still in its infancy, gives you license to ignore reason. We were unprepared and terrified at the prospect of being parents, but we loved each other, wanted a family together, and, anyway, timing isn’t everything. We looked at the future in the context of our present, and felt, in that moment, that we could handle it.
Where the Wild Things Are is not a reassuring movie. Despite its furry, comforting appearance, it comes baring a full set of sharp teeth. This isn’t a film about remembering a beloved children’s book fondly. It’s a film about how shitty being a kid sometimes is, and the ways in which children cope. Max is growing up, and part of growing up is learning disappointment. The world he once saw as limitless and unknowable is slowly coming to be defined by things that he is helpless to change.
The plot of the movie follows the basic outline of the book: Max, wearing his wolf suit, makes mischief of one kind and another, inciting the anger of his mother, and adding to his own frustrations. So, he retreats from that world, sailing in his private boat over a stormy ocean, through weeks and almost over a year, to finally come ashore on the island of the Wild Things. The job of the movie isn’t to expand the plot, but to add shadows and dimension to its characters. We are given reasons for Max’s anger: his teenage sister, his absentee father, learning in school that the sun is dying. All helpful in explaining Max, but ultimately unnecessary. Children get angry, and children act out, and that is the way of things, easily shown in only a few words and some lovely illustrations. But the movie doesn’t just provide motivation for Max’s flight, it takes the spare pages of the book and dives deeper into its darker corners. The ferocity of the wild rumpus, the real threat of being eaten by Wild Things, the intolerable ache that comes of being helpless.
The opening scene immediately strikes a discordant tone. Max’s exuberance when wrestling with his dog isn’t cute or silly. It is primal and unfettered, filled with the kind of energy that only a young boy can get away with, and, even then, is often met with a distanced concern by grownups. Max’s dilemma is apparent from that first scene. He has to begin to reconcile the insular world of a child with the reality that exists outside himself.
When we went to see the movie on opening weekend, we knew two things: the baby was going to be a boy, and it was going to arrive sooner than we had thought possible. Our initial state of shock had been erased by a need to prepare for the fast-approaching future.
There are times when you can look at a movie and see it objectively — or, at least, nearly so. You can look at the individual elements of a film and rate them by how well they are pulled off, and how they contribute to a compelling narrative. But, sometimes a movie is inextricable from the context of your life. For me, the beginning of this movie, before Max travels on his private boat to where the Wild Things are, is filled with the greatest moments of heartbreak.
I had already worried about the practical things, about our finances, about how to move away from a place we never intended to call our home, about what to tell our roommate. I had worried about a lot of things, in that small period of time, since learning I would be a father. But, sitting in that theater, I found myself thinking about things that couldn’t be helped. About the fact that you can never completely know someone, which is fine when that someone is an adult with their own personal history and their own grownup thoughts, but, when that someone is your kid, how do you handle that? How can you keep your child from getting frustrated and angry, from being sad if the reasons for his sadness are ones which you’ll never understand? How can a parent take it? Watching Max was watching all the little failures that are inevitable when you are a parent, that stem from the fact that he is him and you are you.
The movie’s major strength is also what makes it difficult to sit through: it never strays from the confines of child logic. When the monsters challenge the authenticity of Max’s powers, they do it as a child would, working in the confines of his hypothetical magic, never straying into the realm of real-world possibilities. When they get mad, they get mad as kids, unable to control or properly articulate their feelings. They capture, in a disconcertingly accurate way, the frustratingly circular pattern kids’ arguments can take, until someone finally calls infinity plus one or storms off.
Carol, the Wild Thing closest to Max’s own heart, is scared and uncertain and can’t shake an overwhelming sense of loss. These emotions aren’t just depressing; they’re baffling. They don’t jibe with the world he knows, where everyone sleeps in a pile, no one ever leaves, and the sun will live on forever.
When I first watched the movie, I assumed Carol was a stand-in for Max, as KW was a stand-in for Max’s sister. Like Max, Carol is struggling to comprehend why someone he loves doesn’t want to spend as much time with him as she used to, and like Max’s sister, KW is moving on, finding new friends, as incomprehensible (literally) as they may be. But, that interpretation, while true, is also too limiting. In some scenes, Carol is Max, in others, he is an embodiment of raw emotion, and, still, in others, when Carol is fighting with KW, he seems to echo Max’s absent father. Like the Land of the Wild Things, the imagination of a child is a messy one, mixing fantasy and reality, conflating different people into their own, strange creations.
The time on the island quickly shifts, from wild and exciting, to one full of dread and melancholy. When it begins, Carol is a kindred spirit of Max, but, by the end, they have lost their connection, Max having realized that some things can’t be changed and Carol having realized that Max can’t help him — not in the way he wants. He leaves the island, without having improved anything, in fact, probably, leaving things worse than when he came. He slowly travels off in his private boat, as Carol wades into the water after him, speechless and overcome with pain.
The movie doesn’t end cleanly. It’s hard to say whether Max has learned anything, other than the lesson that being with your family is better than living with wild creatures who may eat you. In the final shot, Max is eating a big hunk of chocolate cake as his mother slowly drifts off into sleep, no doubt, plagued by guilt and uncertainty. But, Max watches her drift off and smiles. Maybe, in that moment, he realizes just how much his mother loves him, maybe he is simply happy to be home, or maybe he just really fucking loves chocolate cake. I don’t know. I’ll never really know.
My son is four now, and amazing; as is his little brother. But still, there are moments when I look at him and remember that he’s his own person, with his own private world. Little outbursts of unprovoked anger, strange little actions that he can’t explain. Things that make me remember what I was like as a young boy, the places I used to go to, and still sometimes go. And, I wonder if, on occasion, we go to the same places, still alone, but nearer to each other than we may think. On separate coasts of a small, imaginary island.
There are also times that I think, if he is Max then maybe I am Carol — an overgrown adolescent, unable to articulate my emotions, to properly handle my anger. Still trying to figure out how to act like an adult, and failing at it.
The movie doesn’t offer any answers to these worries. It doesn’t tell you how to raise a child when you don’t want him to grow up; when you’re not sure you’ve grown up yourself. It never fully lets you in. Everything Max thinks is hidden behind giant furry facades, whose emotions come out in their own rhythms and their own private hurts. But Where the Wild Things Are does serve as a reminder, both four years ago and today, of the certainty of failure when it comes to raising another human. All you can do is your best as you fumble around in the dark of someone else’s thoughts, and hope that maybe you can fumble through it together. I can’t always save my child from his own little pains, can’t keep him from the harshness of reality, but I hope I can accompany him and, maybe, guide him a little, in my own, dumb way. Because he doesn’t know that the sun is dying, and, one day, I will have to tell him. But not yet.