City by the Sea (2002), directed by Michael Caton-Jones

city by the sea posterParenting is complicated, especially when it comes to divorce. Many years ago, a friend who went through a stressful divorce, described the toll it took on the relationship between him and his children. His wife, in order to strengthen her own parental identity, created an environment in which the kids had to take sides. His wife manipulated the situation by bad mouthing her husband and limiting his contact with the kids. Eventually, the kids rejected their father in spite of the children’s natural instinct to be loved by both parents.

The professionals tell us that this is the worst outcome of divorce. They urge parents to keep their personal agenda away from the children as much as possible because kids need to maintain healthy and solid relationships with both parents. It was tragic to witness my friend being demonized in the eyes of his kids.

That was not the end of the story. It has been documented that as a result of parental alienation, kids often develop low self-esteem, depression, distrust people, and sometimes fall into substance abuse. Self-hatred also may result because the child may feel unloved by the alienated parent. All these consequences occurred in the children of my friend. Overall, it was a sad and deeply troubling narrative.

City by the Sea, a crime drama, tells the story of Joey LaMarca, a policeman’s son, who is the victim of parent alienation. His father and mother split acrimoniously and Joey’s descent into the world of drugs was part of the fallout. In a drug deal gone bad, Joey without premeditation kills a drug dealer. This sets in motion two parallel forces searching for Joey: the police who see Joey as a prime suspect, and the partner of the dead drug dealer who wants to kill Joey to preserve the invincible aura surrounding his drug operation.

Vincent, Joey’s dad, is conflicted. He has been out of Joey’s life for years. On the one hand, he wants to help him. On the other, he feels duty bound as a law enforcement officer to treat his son as he would treat any other offender. Things come to a boil when Spyder, the drug dealer who is looking for Joey, murders Vincent’s partner. Joey calls his father to tell him that he did not kill the policeman, and Vincent believes him. This creates the foundation of a new relationship between father and son, who for the first time express their affection one another in a direct way, without interference from outsiders.

In Jewish tradition the father-son dialogue is founded on mutual trust and a belief in the essential goodness of the other. In the Ethics of the Fathers, our Sages point out the kindness of the Creator not only in creating man, but in letting man know that he is a “child of God.” When one feels that he is God’s child, it is an emotional game-changer. When Vincent finally expresses his belief in Joey’s innocence, this sets the stage for reconciliation and love.

In Judaism, the transference of wisdom from one generation to the next does not occur through the mere reading of holy text. Rather, it is personal. It is embedded in the conversations between father and son that are steeped in morality and love. In City by theSea, Vincent LaMarca finally understands that his relationship with his son can be saved only when he communicates to him from the heart, when he freely expresses his parenting mistakes, and embarks on a course of lifetime connection with his son.

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