Rudderless (2014), directed by William H. Macy

rudderless posterBeing a father is complicated. I sometimes wonder when I look at my kids to what extent I was a good parent, to what extent am I responsible for who they are today. There are no easy answers. I am sure I was influential; but at the end of the day, my kids, like all kids, have free will and they make their own choices. I cannot control them. I can only give them a perspective from which to view life. I cannot determine their future actions.

This topic is at the heart of Rudderless, a thoughtful film about parent-child relationships and the extent to which parents influence and are responsible for their children’s life choices.

The film begins innocently as Josh Manning is recording his own songs on his computer in his college dorm room. His father Sam calls him after closing a big deal at his advertising firm and wants to celebrate with him, even encouraging him to cut class to meet him. Josh acquiesces. As Sam waits for his son Josh at a restaurant, he sees scenes of a campus shooting in which six students are killed. The next scene reveals a memorial wake in Josh’s home in which friends try to console both Sam and Emily, Josh’s divorced parents, over the loss of their son.

Sam is inconsolable. He is unable to continue at work and succumbs to alcoholism. The story continues two years later with Sam living on a sailboat and working as a contractor’s assistant painting houses. When he meets his ex-wife to sign papers allowing her to sell their former home, she leaves him a stack of things that belonged to Josh. At first, he is reluctant to take them since there is no storage room on boat. However, he notices some notebooks and CDs that pique his curiosity and he begins pouring over the material. He discovers songs, words and lyrics, written by Josh. The melodies and words give him a new insight into his son, and Sam teaches himself his son’s songs. Sam even performs one of them at a local “open mic” venue, which catches the attention of Quentin, a young musician who is inspired by the emotional power of the songs. Thus begins a relationship between Sam and Quentin, which morphs into the creation of Rudderless, a band that features the songs of Josh Manning.

Both Sam and Quentin are evasive about their past and this eventually strains their relationship. In one sense, Quentin becomes a surrogate son to Sam, who sincerely wants to connect with Quentin both musically and emotionally. Quentin becomes the son that Sam no longer has, and Sam wants to help him.

The story then takes a sharp unexpected turn, which compels the viewer to reevaluate everything that has gone before, and I do not want to reveal such a critical plot turnaround. Suffice it to say that the relationship between Quentin and Sam undergoes a crisis, compelling Sam to rethink his performance of his son’s music and his involvement with the band, which is growing in popularity each day.

A key issue considered in the narrative is to what extent we are responsible for our children’s actions, especially when those actions are very bad. Jewish tradition is instructive in this regard. When a Jewish boy reaches the age of thirteen, he has a Bar Mitzvah, a ceremony that marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. At this celebration, the father utters a declaration known as baruch sheptarani, which in English means “Blessed is the One who has relieved me from the punishment due to this one.” The Sages tell us that a father has the obligation to educate his son from birth until the age of thirteen. Once he reaches that age, the father is not required to educate his son. The implication is that until that age, parents can influence their child. However, after that age the child becomes more independent and less receptive to the correction of the parent. Indeed, the parent can still coach and guide, but it is more difficult to teach a child in a direct way.

The implicit message of the blessing’s recital is that parents should spend lots of time with one’s children teaching and guiding them before they reach their teenage years. Once those years arrive, parents have less influence, so they need to build up a bank account of love and respect with their children. This will make it more likely for their children to follow parental suggestions. Rudderless reminds us that we are not in control of our older children; therefore, we need to be very involved with them in their early years in order to be influential in the rest of their lives.

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