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.