It's hard to tell who hurts the most -- the audience or Ted and Billy Kramer. As father and son cling to each other on the playground during the gripping climax of "Kramer vs. Kramer," a chorus of sniffles resounds throughout the theater, echoing the characters' misery.
Despite criticism that the movie strays too far from reality, the reaction of several children of divorced parents we took to see the movie demonstrated their absorption, empathy and identification with the Kramers throughout their bitter divorce and custody battle.
The youngsters' response ranged from breath-holding silence to muffled sobs to delighted titters (when the son surprises his father's nude lover in the hall). Their review was unanimous. It was "great".
"I was shocked," admits 10-year-old Joe Justice. "I never thought anyone would have that much courage to make a movie about divorce. It's so hard. But if someone wants to make a point that's the way to do it -- just go out and show it like it is."
"They were trying to show how divorce really is from the kid's and the parents' point of view," says Bill Hardisty, 13, of Lanham."I thought it was very realistic."
Several scenes from the movie particularly struck the youngsters:
The opening -- when Joanna Kramer leaves her husband of eight years, Ted, and son Billy.
The "ice-cream" scene -- where Billy tests his father's parenting power by eating forbidden ice cream.
The court scene -- where Joanna returns to claim her son.
The playground scene -- where Ted and Billy together face the court's decision to award Joanna custody.
"Divorce is something bad that can happen to parents," sums up Joe."It shouldn't be in the English language. All it spells is misunderstanding, trouble, sacrifice and money -- especially money."
The fifth-grader (whose father describes him as "10 going on 35") should know. Since his parents' divorce four years ago, Joe is constantly dealing with his feelings "of wanting them both and knowing you can't have them both together."
But the Arlington youngster is far from alone. Today 12 million children under age 18 have divorced parents.
"It used to be, if your parents were divorced, that everyone thought you were weird or underprivileged," says 13-year-old Lisa Stuckenschneider. "But now it seems like everyone's parents are divorced."
The youngster's answers to questions about the movie present a child's-eye-view of divorce, custody and relationships among members of a dissolved family.
What was the point of the movie?
Bill Hardisty: "It was to show people who are thinking about getting a divorce what might happen if they do. It might make them not get divorced."
Lisa Stuckenscheneider: "I think they were trying to tell everyone who thinks divorced people are terrible that they are just human. They are people with a problem or misunderstanding."
Cheryl West, 13: "It was a movie to get you thinking about divorce and see all sides of the coin. It was particularly helpful for someone whose parents are divorced because it's very thought-provoking and makes you think about what your parents went through instead of just thinking about yourself."
What surprised you?
Danny Lewis, 11: "It surprised me to learn that both parents thought they were right. Each one was trying to do the best thing. But the mother's big mistake was leaving her son, even though she did it because she loved him so much."
Cheryl: "I couldn't believe the lawyers. They just seemed interested in making negative points and overlooking the facts."
Lisa: "The courtroom surprised me, too. I didn't think lawyers were so cruel, yelling at the opposite parent."
Joe: "The movie filled in a lot of blanks for me. I didn't realize it was that painful for the parents. It made me understand better why my parents split up. They just didn't like each other and nothing was going right."
Who do you think was right, the mother or the father?
Lisa: "They didn't show that much of the mother's point of view. But I think they were both right."
Danny: "I think the father was right because the mother shouldn't have left because the mother shouldn't have left the son."
Bill: "I think the mother was right. She cared enough about the boy to leave him in his home when she was real upset. But she shouldn't have moved all the way to California. She should have found a psychiatrist in New York."
Cheryl: "Neither one was right and neither one was wrong. They had different points of view."
Did you sympathize with Billy, the son?
Joe: "I know how Billy felt when he told his dad he hated him. At the time my mom and dad were fighting I felt like I hate them both. I didn't really though. I was just mad."
Cheryl: "I can relate to how Billy felt torn between the two parents, especially when he ran to see his mother in the park because he missed her, even though that hurt his father. I feel that kind of pulling, too, and it's hard."
Lisa: "I felt sorry for Billy because it's not easy if your parents are divorced. You're trying to cope with their being hurt all the time and not knowing what to say."
Danny: "The hardest thing for him was their getting divorced in the first place. I sympathized with that."
If you were the judge, what would you have done?
Danny: "I would have told them to get remarried again. Then they could have started the relationship all over and the boy would have had two parents."
Bill: "I would have let the kid decide who he wanted to live with. It's a tough decision, but he'd know best who'd take care of him."
Cheryl: "Both parents were suitable for the job, but the father was the one living with the boy recently. He did a lot of growing and was caring more about his child. It was hard to decide because you didn't get to see too much about the mother. But from what they showed, I'd pick the father."
Joe: "I'd have given custody to the dad because the mother shouldn't have left him in the first place. But I would have tried to get them to like each other better and get remarried."
Who should get custody, a father or a mother?
Bill: "It should be the parent who cares about the child the most and who can take care of him better."
Danny: "I think the father could do better than the mother sometimes. They are both important, and it should depend on who can do the best job."
Did you think the movie was realistic?
Cheryl: "I think the boy, especially, was realistic. You could see him try to keep it in and be brave, but he was very hurt by it. I feel like that a lot."
Danny: "It was very realistic. I cried two times -- when the boy cried because he had to leave the father and at the end."
Lisa: "In real life it doesn't work out perfect at the end like that. There's always something to fight about. It goes on forever."