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Attention All Fathers (and Sons)

In The Way, Martin Sheen learns how to be a Dad - the hard way

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Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFE0-LfUKgA
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This season brings us two wonderful movies about a father's regret in the face of losing a loved one. The more attention grabbing of the two features George Clooney in The Descendents, playing a husband and father coming to terms with his dying wife, two unhappy daughters, and a life of mistakes.  He is up for a well deserved Oscar for this complicated and layered performance. The second film is smaller, but equally profound. Today's article coincides with the release of The Way, a movie about a father and a son, and starring — literally — a father and a son.

Emilio Estevez's The Way is an adult movie without all the sex. There's just one child actor in the film and he plays a Gypsy son who requires (and gets) a good dose of parenting. What a pleasure to see a movie that speaks to grownups and makes no apologies for doing so.The Way is a painful, yet important movie depicting a broken relationship between a successful California ophthalmologist named Tom, played by Martin Sheen and his son, Daniel, played by his real life son, Emilio Estevez. It is a movie about the redemptive power of the bond between a boy and his dad.

I admit it. I'm a sucker for films of this kind. But then again, I loved Imagine That starring Eddie Murphy as an irresponsible father discovering his love for his ten year old daughter, and Jim Carey in Liar Liar, playing an even more irresponsible father finding what's really important. Kids need to be loved and we parents, need to do that loving.


The Way has a tragic premise. Tom's wife had died years ago and his almost forty year old son drops out of grad school to go traveling the world. Daniel has a sense of purpose that won't be denied. Tom is outraged and lets his son know it. Daniel leaves — and what comes next is chilling. Tom gets a call from the French police. He's on the golf course, chattering away with his well healed friends, when his cell rings. "I am sorry to tell you, but your son is dead." And with this, Tom's life changes.

Tom drops everything and flies off to rural France to identify the body. Apparently, Daniel had embarked on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, a six hundred kilometer hike from France to Spain; the destination being a holy church housing the reputed remains of St. James, the brother of Jesus. Andrew had died in a freak storm and Tom is heartbroken. Overwhelmed with his loss, Tom finds greatness in the moment. He takes his son's ashes and decides to finish the trek for him. Daniel no longer can hike, but his seventy year old dad can —and does. So we have a story of a journey. This pilgrimage has ancient roots which has attracted adventurers and penitents for centuries. Tom meets up with a small cast of characters and bonds — albeit reluctantly. The film has the feel of Lord of the Rings, with majestic backgrounds and growing relationships. Toms grief is palpable, and so is his healing into life; a life that Andrew always wanted for him.

To be fair, Estevez's script can be a bit heavy handed, with unnecessary dialogue, such as all the philosophizing about what makes a real pilgrim. But the film has humanity. The character of this suffering father — Tom — is archetypical and reminds me of a upsetting role played by Robert Dinero in The Mission - a story involving the redemption of a seventeenth century mercenary who murdered his beloved younger brother because of an empty duel of honor. The truth is that all of us fail our families in some way and need forgiveness. The film posits a question that I have dealt with in my personal and professional life; what do you do as a father if your beloved son develops a passion that is well outside what you sense is The Way? It is easy to admire, support and enjoy a lad who does what you think is right — more or less. What if he simply has a different passion in this world? What do you do?

Tom failed Daniel on this count. He condemned a son who was doing little wrong other than not living the life that his dad wanted for him. He wanted to see the world — and come back enriched. He was hurting no one. Daniel felt Tom's anger — and rejection. This is not an uncommon story. How many dads around the world protect their self esteem in scenes not unlike this one?  How many of us fail our children? Emilio Estevez offers us redemption and Tom's grief is transformed into an identification with his deceased son — and a discovery of a new side to himself. He literally caries his son on his back, lives life through his eyes, grieves a meaningful grief and emerges a more loving and open man.

Tragedy can bury us, but whether the trauma is a divorce, a death or a disappointment, it is how we handle the unbearable that makes it manageable, if not life affirming. It's up to the audience to decide if Tom indeed fails Daniel; I think not. In my mind the real tragedy is that a truly loving parental response had to happen posthumously. Life rarely works out cleanly and The Way has much to teach about the challenge of being a good Dad (or Mom). Like Tom, we fathers can be quite controlling. We are anxious that our sons succeed. It's a harsh world out there after all — isn't it? And we know better. Or do we?

To my dad, who passed away ten short years ago, I miss you and appreciate that you allowed me to go my own way. To all the dads - give your sons (and daughters) the best that you've got, but be aware that they are truly their own persons. You can be a guide and a role model.Yet, in the end, your sons and daughters will have to find their own Way.

And that is the way it should be.

Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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