Sunday, November 15, 2009

We all have a little ‘Max’ inside

In the dark, I sat next to my daughter, hissing a threat:

“If you DON’T calm down, I WILL take you out of this theater and we WILL go home.”

The constant motion of her anxious body continues, as does my threat:

“AND if we leave here now there will be NO MORE MOVIES until you can BE STILL.”

Her feet stop kicking the empty seat in front of her. She stops bouncing and the annoying squeak of the generations-old theater seat beneath her falls silent.

I mean business.

The irony that I want her to have self control for a screening of “Where the Wild Things Are” — Maurice Sendak’s classic tale of childhood angst and imagination, made larger than life in Spike Jonze’s latest movie — isn’t lost on me.

Nor is the fact that I’m taking my five-year-old daughter to a PG-rated movie on a school night.

I knew the movie would have tough subject matter for a kid her age.

I knew that, unlike the original book, the cinematic exploration of Max’s psyche would delve more deeply than might seem necessary for a small boy who willfully chases a dog, clashes with his mother over eating supper and disappears into a land of makebelieve.

I knew some details would go right over her head. I also suspected other details might be surprisingly different than what I had anticipated.

I knew the movie, with its larger than life characters and special effects, might be frightening.

But I also know my daughter and her love of excitement.

And I believed Maurice Sendak — who was involved in the retelling of his beautiful and lyrical allegory — would protect his work, thus protecting his readers and the audience.

I believe. I believe. I believe.

When the lights dim and the film starts, we are introduced to Max — a 12-year-old boy in a wolf suit, brandishing a fork and chasing a cairn terrier around the living room.

The hand-held camera adds terror as Max wrestles the pet.

I am quick to doubt my inner parent.

He seems too old to be in a wolf suit. He seems too angry, too violent, too frightening.

I look at my husband. I hope this wasn’t a mistake.

I am suspending disbelief. I am suspending disbelief. I am suspending disbelief.

As I expected, Ittybit is on the edge of her seat asking questions: “Why is he doing that? He didn’t hurt the dog, did he? He’s just playing, right?”

I assure her it is the story of the Max she knows from the books. I tell her Max is a boy who gets angry and frustrated just like she does. He’s a good boy who has bad moments.

Then Max is outside, having a snowball fight with his sister’s friends. He is smiling in his war effort. He becomes the child we all wanted to be, in a childhood we all wanted to have. He is joy personified.

For the next hour and a half we were unable to look away from the screen. She kept asking questions at every scene.

“What did he say? Why did he do that? Why is he so mad?”

She connects with Max as a child would while I see him the way a mother might. For a time we are both afraid for him.

“What will happen next? Why is he crying?”

There are no easy answers. “Just because” won’t cut it. You lived it, too.

“You know how it feels when you just want to play, but no one will play with you?

“Or when your brother wrecks something you worked really hard to build? How unfair it feels when people expect you to be a big girl, and not be angry? It’s frustrating.”

She nods.

“You feel invisible.”

That can make people even more frustrated.

She knows about that, too.

Like Max, she is every child. She knows what it’s like to be told to ‘Be Still.’

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