Leef Eirik Sawyer questions the celebration of statutory rape in Adam Sandler’s new film That’s My Boy.
The trailer for That’s My Boy starts with a group of young teenage boys gawking at a beautiful female teacher who is walking suggestively down the school corridor. Everyone has a teenage crush, splash the words across the screen. The focus then narrows to one boy, no more than fourteen years old, and more words play across the screen. Donnie’s … went a little too far. The scene abruptly transitions to a courtroom in which the judge justifies imposing the maximum sentence because a pregnancy resulted. At that point the boys in the courtroom – including Donnie – high-five each other with smirks and gloating smiles.
Adam Sandler has a remarkable gift of taking irreverence to comic extremes. Sometimes we laugh at things we know we shouldn’t – but can’t help ourselves as the tickle of the moment outpaces our sense of indignation. Toeing that line inevitably will result in edging over it occasionally. And most might forgive the occasional miscalculation in the name of such an intrinsically human art as comedy. But in the scenario illustrated above, Sandler has not merely edged past that line. He has taken a large and deliberate step over it to get the laugh.
The premise of the film is that Donnie grows into an over-aged child, a 40-something man who sees the world through the eyes of a powerful and perpetual pubescence. To help extricate himself from a sticky situation with the IRS, he seeks help from the child he bore with that teacher, now a financial professional. The movie is described as “the story of a child…and his son,” and indeed the truth in that statement resonates far beyond the cheap laughs that it is played for.
While Sandler demonstrates the insight that young sexual abuse victims are often locked into childhood—that this experience somehow relates to the later dysfunction as an adult—his savvy falls flat on its face when he interprets it as a joke.
I believe that little in this world is reverent enough not to withstand the jabs of good humor. Humor allowed me to survive the toughest challenges in my own life. Several years ago, when Roberto Benigni introduced a scene at a Nazi concentration camp in the movie Life is Beautiful, I would have never bought the concept that he could play it for laughs and make it work. Yet in one of the most skillfully nuanced comic scenes, he did just that. It worked because the comedy was not distilled and separated from humanity, but instead remained firmly rooted in it. What drove the humor was the extraordinary effort of a father to protect his son. The tears in the laughter stood as strong testament to the fact that love and joy can still triumph even in the midst of darker inhumanities. Not every writer can be a Benigni.
So while I can buy the premise that humor could be painted into the process of how Donnie may cope with his own statutory rape at the hands of an adult (which is precisely what it is), the situation itself is seriously unfunny. To play it as such and then use it as a foundation for a comedy suggests that Sandler’s script delivers little wit and substance beyond the character he portrays. Humor, when played without regard to the underlying humanity, rings hollow—and sometimes even cruel.
It is worth considering what, for some, is the elephant in the discussion. One of the myths that the movie plays into is that of a younger immature boy realizing his sexual fantasy with a beautiful mature woman as a rite of passage. While perhaps most are enlightened about the fallacy in that scenario, it is worth revisiting. Young adolescent boys and girls often develop attractions and even crushes on adults, including teachers. While these feelings are perfectly natural, acting on them is just as perfectly inappropriate. The fact is that in any adult-child relationship, the power balance is heavily skewed to the adult, and it is up to them to act in the interests of the child.
Childhood sexual abuse is the result of the adult taking advantage of that power to gratify to their own short-term interests at the expense of the child’s long-term wellbeing. As such, it is an egregiously selfish act, as well as a criminal one. Could Sandler play to the same laughs if the genders were reversed? Would the relationship be justified if a female student had a crush on a male teacher? What if Donnie was bisexual or even gay—would it be appropriate for him to be high-fiving over a consummated sexual relationship with an adult man? The fact is that in all these situations, the sexual orientation is not the issue—the action of the adult is. The true power always lies with the adult, and regardless of the youngster’s limited perspective at the time, that child will ultimately be left to reconcile the ledger of a seriously over-drafted trust.
This movie will open just ten days after the trial of Jerry Sandusky is scheduled to begin. Many young boys were subjected to the seduction of an adult in that case. Both the teacher in this movie and Jerry Sandusky were mentors to their victims, and both manipulated their young charges into selfish and destructive behaviors, leaving those kids holding secrets and responsibilities beyond their developmental maturity.
A tremendous tragedy in the Sandusky case is that despite a history of suspected, known and even witnessed abuse, the situation was ignored by those who should have stepped in, and the victims were left alone to square with themselves the damage done. No one looked deeply enough, apparently because no one wanted to. Sandler continues to play to this disaffection, except this time with a twist. He implies we can look at it—but only as a joke.