Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) ★★★★★ 5/5
Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) packs her bags and prepares to leave. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) arrives home late from work to find Joanna leave. It is an abrupt ending to their marriage and we don't know what spurred it. The breakup is swift and fairly calmly played out. Ted figures Joanna will be back within a few days. Joanna does not come back. This scenario is an easy enough plot, but it becomes complicated as they have a son, Billy (Justin Henry).
Ted is a marketing man with a high paced, exhausting job. Yet, he has to completely turn his life around to learn how to incorporate Billy into his life. Previously, Joanna had done all the child rearing. Ted now has to learn to cook and shop, maintain a family schedule, balance play time and work time, and teach his young son how to develop.
Just as his life is in complete sync, and Billy has adjusted to having only a Father, Joanna reappears. Her appearance, well over a year after she had left, comes with news that she wants her son back. Court proceedings take place and a custody battle ensues. It literally becomes Kramer vs Kramer in a tear jerking drama as lawyers cut deep to twist the facts in an effort to make each look unfit as a parent.
With no question whatsoever, Justin Henry may quite possibly have put on the best performance by any child on the big screen. He is emotional and on cue with every motion and line delivered. At times defiant, at times joyful, his presence completely steals the scene. There are times where it is hard to determine if the film is about Billy's adjustment to life without a Mother, or if it is a film about the estranged relationship between his parents. Meryl Streep is always consistent and has the chops to make you believe anything she does. Her emotional instability is relayed just from her facial expressions alone. The isolation and torment that she has brought on upon herself as Joanna puts her in a unique position. While she is the Mother, and the love for her child is clearly strong, her psychological demons, which are mostly kept from the viewer, make her unlikable in many ways. This film is probably one of Dustin Hoffman's finest. he is lovable as a Dad thrown into a new lifestyle. As a viewer, you feel for him. You feel love, pity, sympathy, joy, sadness and so on.
While entertaining, the film is also highly socially relevant. More often then not, it has been the Father associated with packing up and leaving the family. Kramer vs. Kramer flips that stereotype around and puts the Father in the place of where we traditionally see the abandoned Mother. It's quite progressive in nature as far as delivering a social message to viewers other then what we are accustomed to seeing. I felt that in this movie, Ted was clearly the stronger parent. In a sensible world, custody would have been given to him with no question. In this film, custody in the end is awarded to the Mother who had left. Sadly, this would be the case in the real world despite the fact the Father was there and the Mother was clearly unfit. Kramer vs. Kramer basically is saying that our society and courts are quick to abandon Father's rights regardless of whether the Mother is fit as a parent or not. It's a sad realization and prompted a change in thinking, which sadly has not seemed to have occurred.
On a production side note I have to add I was disgusted to see this film was nominated for an Academy Award in editing. This movie had one of the most noticable editing flaws I have ever seen in a movie. In one scene, Ted is walking with Margaret (Jane Alexander) in a blizzard. The following scene, Ted enters a small bar to meet with his lawyer to get the verdict results. He walks in with his winter coat, yet in the back ground the trees reveal they are in full foilage. The sky is clear and a light wind blows the leaves. At first thought, it would seem time has passed and the case dragged on into summer. This thought is quickly put to rest when the following scene again takes place in the midst of winter. Very disappointing. I should almost knock it down a star for that!