I walked into Finding Nemo in the summer of 2003 eager to see the latest Pixar had for me. I went out of my way to see it after a few weeks had gone by, at an out-of-the-way theater, so I wouldn’t be surrounded by kids. It was just me and a few little old ladies. Good thing, too, because the opening of the movie left me a blubbering mess for a good 15 minutes.
If you haven’t seen it, the opening of Finding Nemo features Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his wife Coral (Elizabeth Perkins) looking over their eggs and talking about baby names. They’re soon attacked by a barracuda and in the space of a few seconds, Marlin loses nearly everything except for one egg: the Nemo of the title. It’s a sad, upsetting moment that hit me particularly deeply because of how I grew up.
For nearly a decade, my father raised me on his own, building an ad hoc support network out of co-workers, friends, and ultimately moving back to his home state to get the support he needed to raise his son, sacrificing a career and many of the close friendships he’d built in the process. He essentially spent every waking minute either working to support me or raising me. At the time, I didn’t realize how stressful and anxiety-ridden this all was: We left the city of my birth, I later learned, because a shooting at the local mall was the last straw for my father. And much of the time we spent together was spent watching movies; I learned to love movies from my father, a love I’ve carried with me ever since. Especially the comedies of Albert Brooks. I might have been the one sixth-grader who’d even seen Defending Your Life once, let alone multiple times.
So, Finding Nemo was more or less an emotional heat-seeking missile for me. I still have to pick the movie up well after that opening if I re-watch, which I rarely do, since just the memory of that sequence tears me up. But it’s a movie I needed to see, and I suspect many children of single parents feel the same way.
Usually, when you see single parents on film, they’re portrayed as broken, an attitude that has an oddly stubborn shelf-life to this day on the Hallmark Channel and elsewhere. By the end of the movie, there’s a new partner who fixes everything and the nuclear family is restored. This couldn’t be more condescending if you said it in baby-talk. When your emotional world falls apart, and worse, falls apart with nobody to blame, kids (and adults) tend to deal with it poorly. Children of single parents tend to have trust issues. I’ve spent my entire life struggling with that, and mostly what I got from the movies, the place I usually turned to for solace, was to buck up, champ, you’ll be normal once a bunch of wacky misunderstandings end in a marriage.
Finding Nemo, though, puts struggles with trust front and center. In fact, Marlin’s central character flaw is that he doesn’t trust anybody, not even his own son. There’s a beautiful, painful sequence where Marlin’s anxiety and fear overwhelm him and he screams at his son “You can’t do it, Nemo!” only to recoil in horror at what he just said. The movie doesn’t end with a fish marriage; it ends with Marlin growing as a father and giving Nemo the space he needs to be his own person. Not completely, of course, because you never do, but enough space for Nemo to grow into himself. It’s the rare movie that just gets it, that doesn’t talk down, that makes you feel like someone else understands.
To give you an idea of how tight this bond can be, one of the strangest disagreements my father and I ever had was over my allowance. I’d just gotten a job at the local movie theater and yet my father still wanted to give me my allowance. I turned him down, finally, pointing out that I was making far more in a given week than I could ever ask him to provide. We argued a bit, not seriously, and he ultimately acquiesced to common sense. But there was an odd look on his face, one I hadn’t seen before.
One thing I kept, though, was the old apple juice jar he used to put my allowance in. He’d first washed it out and put it on the counter in a small apartment when I was six, explaining to me that I was getting a dollar a day, and I could spend that dollar or keep it in the jar. That jar filled with dollars and quarters and nickels and emptied to buy candy and video games. It followed me from that apartment to another state, to a college dorm, and even to the series of apartments everyone in their early twenties lives in. In one of those was where, inevitably perhaps, it fell off the shelf and broke, suddenly nothing more than a pile of coins and shards of brown glass.
My girlfriend at the time couldn’t quite figure out why I was so upset, nearly to the point of tears. I’m not sure I knew myself. But it felt like I’d lost something, and I came back to that look on my father’s face. I’ve come to realize that our argument over my allowance might have been the first moment that he realized that I wasn’t going to be there forever, that I was on the verge of adulthood, and he wasn’t quite sure how he felt. Our bond wasn’t going to break, but it was going to change, and as I’ve gotten older I understand just how scary that can be.
Finding Nemo was never intended to be, explicitly, about single parents. Andrew Stanton has confessed his struggles with parental anxiety drove him to write the script. But that it can resonate so well across different kinds of families suggests it struck an even deeper chord. We go to the movies to find those shared emotional chords, and there are some that just simply never come up. So, with more than a decade’s distance, I realize my tears in that theater had nothing to do with what happened to Marlin. It was a moment where I was just grateful to learn that somebody, anybody, even knew that chord existed, and had the courage to strike it.