[Where The Wild Things Are – Spoilers]
There were occasions in my childhood when tears were not enough of an expression of my hurt and anger. Once, when I was particularly mad at my brother, I took his photos out of the hallway frames and turned them around. By the time anyone noticed, I had already forgotten what had so offended me.
I never did anything as bad as Max in Where The Wild Things Are. In retaliation for being ignored by his sister Claire when her friends crushed him under his own igloo, Max tears apart her treasured hand-crafted valentine card (from Max) and shakes snow all over her carpet.
I would do things like grab my brother’s tennis racket and take it outside to be bounced on the concrete or rip the missiles off his intricately painted model airplanes. And afterward, just like Max, I would feel a burst of regret. Honestly, I don’t know how I made it out of adolescence without being pummeled by my brother (we came close a few times).
Max’s Mom helps him clean the mess. Later, Max’s mom, a writer, plays a familiar game with Max where he dictates a story that she types. Even though she’s busy and stressed, she gives him this moment of creative expression – it’s just the sort of distraction that they both need. A moment of bonding.
Later, we see that Max’s mom is divorced. A new boyfriend is infiltrating the house and making emotions raw. In the original screenplay, when Max is acting up, the boyfriend says, “Ignore him. He just wants attention.”
It takes me back to an emotionally tender day for me in fifth grade. I was dancing around in the puddles after kickball while the rest of the class lined up to return inside. When I finally noticed everyone, I skipped over to join them. I was horrified when my fellow students individually started teasing “We see you, Colin.” as if they were prompted to do so by the teacher. For whatever reason, I carried “we see you Colin” with me far longer than I should have. Ah, the life of a sensitive white boy.
Max’s Mom curses him off the counter, chases him, grabs him hard, and yells at him. He bites her. When tension in the house takes you to the point of grabbing and shaking, you’ve missed something. There’s an underlying need in your child, a neglected root cause, that you were too busy or too self-involved to notice. Not that anyone can blame you too much – even a zen master would struggle with the endless iterations of sibling rivalry and/ or whining that some parents must endure.
When Max arrives on the island of wild things, his subconscious manifests a world where his problems disappear, where he is in control of the complexities of his own mind. In this world, people say exactly how they feel, they join him in playful chaos, they respect him and revere him as a king. Max finds a kindred spirit in Carol, the alpha dog of all the monsters, a father-figure to give Max the respect, attention, and emotional communication he so desperately needs. In Carol, Max sees his inner desire to be both creator and destroyer of worlds, not a god, but godlike in action, almost like a parent.
The role reversal of being the King of a gang of childlike creatures gives him the perspective that he’ll need when he returns home. Max, like his mom, is concerned with making “things OK”, making his wild family happy, and keeping them entertained. We see a lesson in parenting when Max mocks the monster named Judith – she is so hurt that her parent-figure would invalidate her feelings with mockery.
Max realizes that parents aren’t perfect and all-powerful. Parents make mistakes. Things go wrong despite their best intentions. Even in a fantasy land, Max can’t keep his family together. He can’t keep people from getting hurt. He can’t do any better than any other flawed human. The wounded goat says to Max, “You aren’t even a king, are you? You’re regular.” Yes, he is. We all are. Even kings.
All this comes to a head when Carol flies into a rage, chasing Max into KW’s mouth. This exchange occurs when Max is resting in KW’s womb-like belly, protected from the danger outside…
KW (to Carol): “YOU’RE OUT OF CONTROL!”
Max (to KW): “He doesn’t mean to be that way, KW. He’s only scared.”
KW: “Well, he just makes it harder, and it’s hard enough already.”
Max: “He loves you. He’s your family.”
KW: “Yeah, it’s hard being a family.”
And then Max is reborn from KW’s mouth, and with this rebirth, he finds renewed spirit to return to confront the monsters in his own home.
He walks into his kitchen, where his Mom finds him and holds him extra close. She’s about to say something, but she just holds him. She fixes him dinner and stares at him; at last, she’s finally able to sleep knowing that he’s safe at home. And Max learns while eating his hot supper that, no matter what, his mom will always love him, and he will always love her, even if life’s not perfect right now.
I remember that feeling in ninth grade when my parents were divorcing, when my brother was away at college, and when I was dealing with being abandoned by my best friends. I know there were moments when I must have been a confused wild thing. We all have those moments, but we pass through them, hoping that at the end of our wild rumpus, dinner will still be served.
And now that I’m a parent, seeing my children occasionally become whirlwinds of anger, I remind myself to acknowledge their emotions, to stay present, to flow with their resistance, and to be as good a parent to them as mine were to me.