“Mommy stayed here longer than she wanted because she loves you so much. And the reason why Mommy couldn't stay anymore... was because she couldn't stand me. She didn't leave because of you. She left because of me.”
Robert Benton’s third feature film, Kramer vs. Kramer, still stands out as his best. This 1979 family drama which explores interpersonal relationships and the effect divorce has on the family, remains very relevant in today’s society. It is one of those rare classics that has managed to age very well due to its universal theme. In order for an authentic drama like this to work you need a strong script and believable actors. Kramer vs. Kramer has both, Robert Benson did an amazing job with the screenplay adaptation of Avery Corman’s novel and the dialogue in the film feels authentic while avoiding any false notes. And of course you couldn’t have had anyone better than Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep to play the divorced couple. Hoffman was already at the height of his career, while Streep was just getting started proving she’s always been an out of this world actress. Both actors won their first Academy Awards for this film, and it wouldn’t be their last. But in a film like this no matter how good the adult characters are, you need to have a child who can win over the sympathy of the audience and engage them emotionally. Benton made a huge gamble when he hired inexperienced Justin Henry for the role, but it payed off marvelously. At only 8 years old Henry was nominated for his supporting role. The scenes he shares with Hoffman are endearing and the relationship between the two is the center of the film. It was the subtle moments that the two shared together that stuck with me the most, like the scene where the kid challenges his father’s authority by eating the ice cream. These were improvised scenes, but they added to the authenticity of the film. That relationship between both of them is key, as we witness the transition and evolution of Hoffman’s character.
The film opens with a shot of Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) packing her clothes in a suitcase while she waits for her husband, Ted (Dustin Hoffman) to return home from work so that she can break the news to him that she is leaving him. Apparently she has been unhappy for quite some time now and she wants to discover who she is. Despite being heartbroken about having to abandon her young son, Billy (Justin Henry), she is convinced she has to go. Ted, who hasn’t the slightest clue about housekeeping, must now learn to manage his work while taking care of his son. During the early scenes we see what an inexperienced father he is, he can’t prepare breakfast for Billy without burning everything. But as the movie progresses we begin to see the transformation that Ted goes through and what a caring father he becomes. His career does begin to suffer and he begins struggling to keep his job, but he has learned to put his son’s life before his own. With the help of his friendly neighbor, Margaret (Jane Alexander), he becomes an expert at parenting, but that is around the time that Joanna returns back to the city and tells Ted she wants to take her son with him. A court battle for their son’s custody ensues as neither parent refuses to live without their son.
The film builds a great father and son dynamic during most of its runtime and that is what makes the courtroom drama so compelling near the end because the stakes have been settled. I don’t think this film would’ve won the Oscar for Best Picture if it weren’t for those intense scenes during the trial. The testimony each parent gives is compelling and the performances in those scenes were superb, but I actually enjoyed the quieter and more subtle moments in this film. The scenes were Hoffman is sharing some time at the park with his son or simply reading a story to him. Those were the moments that made this film ring true and authentic. I think that the film could’ve ended on a stronger note if it decided to have ended some five minutes before it actually did because it ties things up too neatly at the end. The final kitchen scene would’ve been the perfect moment to end it, but I won’t complain too much because the film is compelling and the performances had me engaged from the very opening scene. Kramer vs. Kramer still resonates with audiences today and it is a great example of how to make a compelling family drama about the effect that divorce has on the family. I enjoyed every minute of it.