Periodically, I plan to write about films – new or old – that portray single dads in a realistic way. I’ll discuss themes and situations they present that resonate with dads. This is the first installment.
In The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith stars as a man whose wife just left him and their 5-year-old son (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden.) The 2006 film is based on a true story.
I’ve never seen a film that captures the emotions of a single dad better than The Pursuit of Happyness.
Smith plays Chris Gardner, a struggling but intelligent young man who must find a way to provide for his son, named Christopher. At the start of the movie, he’s stuck in a dead-end job selling an obscure medical device that few doctors want.
His wife, tired of the financial struggles and marital strife, abruptly leaves and moves across the country. She feels guilty about abandoning her son but says she knows her soon-to-be-ex will take good care of him.
Smith’s character is understandably angry but doesn’t try to persuade her to stay.
“You want to leave?” he asks her.
“Yes,” she replies.
“Then get the hell out of here. Christopher is staying with me.”
This is an emotionally searing scene that hit close to home for me. Like the movie character, I suddenly found myself being the primary caregiver of a young son after my wife abruptly left.
You may have experienced a similar situation.
I remember being flooded with a torrent of emotions. How would I care for a 2-year-old son by myself? How would I be both mother and dad? How would I explain why his mom left when he got older?
But soon, I developed a steely determination to excel as a single father. Failure was not an option.
Smith’s character has the same dogged attitude. He doesn’t whine about being left in charge of his son. He starts addressing problems as soon as they arise.
He can’t afford the rent in his apartment, so he moves to a motel. He gets evicted for nonpayment and moves to a homeless shelter. Even in the shelter, Smith tucks his son into bed at night, says he loves him, and puts on a brave face about their future.
The boy feeds off his dad’s strength and doesn’t collapse emotionally.
Smith’s character, who never attended college, lands an unlikely job as a stockbroker after a six-month internship. The movie ends with Smith’s euphoria at winning the job over other candidates, knowing a better financial future awaits him and his son.
The central theme, however, isn’t that hard work can result in career success. It’s that a dad can encounter a crisis, find himself alone as a parent, yet overcome obstacles and be the man he should be.
Smith’s character found inner strength through the adversity and forged a special bond with his son. I can relate. Maybe you can too.
Smith does make mistakes in the movie. Once, he loses his temper, grabs his son and tells him to shut up. I’ve done that, too, unfortunately. But Smith realizes when he errs and apologizes to his son.
That’s a critical lesson for single dads. Don’t expect perfection of yourself, but don’t ignore your failures. Own up to them and become a better father.
The Pursuit of Happyness should be required watching for single dads. Hopefully, most of us won’t experience the dire economic straits that Smith’s character encountered.
But we’ll face the same terror and uncertainty that he did at the prospects of being a single dad with custody. He didn’t run from the challenge.
Neither should we.
Photo courtesy of Official Pursuit of Happyness website.