THREE STARS – Thought-provoking
The complexity of blending two families into one is painful and difficult. What makes the combining so challenging is not only the depth of the old loyalties, with their barely submerged disappointments and resentments, but also the hope of the new ties, with their naive expectations. Both old and new are laden with emotions which lead adults and children into unexpected battlefields.
Although “Stepmom” has been criticized for being sentimental due to the presence of a terminal illness, this same illness also forces everyone to confront their difficulties in accelerated, honest and ultimately healing ways.
The story centers around the on-going relationship of a divorced man and woman who share joint custody of their children. The two children are Anna (Jena Malone), a twelve-year-old girl with penetrating insights, and Ben (Liam Aiken), a smiling, fun-loving six-year-old. The old loyalty of the children to their natural parents is an inextinguishable flame. Many adults whose parents divorced when they were children have expressed the continuing dream that, even decades later, their parents will still get back together. This old loyalty to their biological family is a strong resistance against any attempts to accept a new step-mother into the family.
The father, Luke (Ed Harris), is a lawyer who, though seemingly caring, has little time and ability to either communicate or demonstrate his commitments or love.
In one very revealing scene, Luke is oblivious to the pain on his ex-wife’s face when he meets her at her request. Having been told by her doctor that she needs to tell her ex-husband that she has terminal cancer, Luke blurts out instead that he has something to tell her. Ever the nurturing mother, Jackie (Susan Sarandon) swallows her pain as she encourages Luke to tell his news first. Luke tells her that he is going to ask Isabel (Julia Roberts) to marry him. When Jackie then asks her ex-husband what will make this second marriage work when theirs did not, Luke is unable to even offer a response, much less an answer. Jackie’s news remains unspoken.
This exemplifies one problem which is often present in families. Although the man may be a seemingly successful lawyer who can communicate in his profession, such a man is often speechless when the discussion shifts to the emotional language of relationships. Unable to explain what went wrong in the first marriage, the old inabilities and unresolved issues are waiting to explode like land mines in the second.
The opposite is true of Jackie and Isabel’s open exchanges. Their livid yet articulate communication oscillates from outspoken cruelty to vulnerable though tentative affection. The fears of both are expressed near the end of the film when Isabel tells Jackie that her greatest fear is that on Anna’s wedding day, after all that Isabel has done to express love to her as a stepmom, that Anna will wish that her mother, Jackie, was the one present. Jackie responds, “And my greatest fear is that she won’t.”
This is a spiritual struggle as well, as shown in a powerful scene in which Jackie passes on to both Anna and Ben her anger toward Isabel. Ben expresses it when he looks up at his mother and says, “If you want me to hate her, I will.”
Hate is a spiritual choice. Though his stepmom is trying to offer Ben her loving care, he is willing to hate her if his mother desires this of him. Since there is no counselor or guidance toward reconciling love from a faith community in their lives, the family is left to their own limited resources. Such a void can cause any of us to introduce into the mix of emotions and interactions an ingredient so noxious that our children suffer deeply because of it. By confronting us with the necessity of forgiveness and compassion, spiritual direction and relational counsel are vital to the process of restoring broken lives and marriages,as well as in reaching resolutions of past pains which is necessary to move forward.
This restoration is exemplified graphically in the film, as Jackie reaches out to Isabel and allows her to use her photography to capture the love she has for her children. This is mirrored by the children who allow Isabel to capture them in life-size images to be placed in Jackie’s room. This acceptance and inclusion in the family is completed when the family portrait at the end of the film includes all five of them, with Jackie’s arm over Isabel’s shoulder.
“Stepmom” is a valuable experience for all of us revealing the complexities of family life, especially for those of us experiencing the difficulties of blended families. We need direct communication and exploration of the issues in all of our families for understanding and compassionate reconciliation to occur.