Judd Apatow’s kids are incredible. Not only are they good sports for Dad, showing up in nearly all of his directed movies, but they nail their roles. One could argue that they’re essentially playing themselves, big deal, how hard can that be? But that’s not entirely fair. (Also, they’re kids for Christ’s sake! Why are you bashing their acting skills?! Leave them be, goddammit!)
Anyway, I bring up the kids because, despite being kids and acting their respective ages, they’re the most adult characters in the film. And the youngest daughter, Charlotte (played by the youngest Apatow, Iris), is probably the most mature of all — and, in a way, the movie’s most important character.
Charlotte is the fly on the wall. Constantly caught in the middle of her family’s issues (whether it’s a fight between Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) or Sadie’s externalized growing pains), Charlotte observes the sadness and overwhelming longing from afar, a bit disconnected from it because the details tend to go over her head. But her inadvertent detachment from the issues is what makes her the wisest character. What the fighting is about doesn’t really matter to her — and for the most part, she’s of the right mindset, as many of the arguments stem from trivial issues. It’s the fighting itself that’s the problem.
Charlotte is the only one who understands that all of this fighting is pointless.
She’s not immune from her own bouts of sadness and longing, though. It’s a family affair. Charlotte’s issues, however, juxtaposed with the rest of her family’s, seem the most unselfish and authentic: she just wants to reconnect with the older sister that she admires so much, and to make her happy. Charlotte’s sadness and longing isn’t about Charlotte and Charlotte only. Because of that, her ordeal is the most heartbreaking to witness.
Two emotional moments that showcase this stand out. The first is one of the strongest scenes of the film, featuring Charlotte and Debbie. It’s intimate as hell and effortless — the real life mother-daughter dynamic revealing itself. (There’s a good chance that it was improvised, as well, being an Apatow movie and all.) Debbie is putting Charlotte to bed, seeming to relish the break from the chaos, reluctant to leave the quiet of her daughter’s bedroom. Talking about the future and what Charlotte wants to be when she grows up, Debbie asks her if she wants kids. Charlotte says she does, but just one.
“Because if I have two, the other will fight with the other one,” she explains.
“Does it make you sad when you fight?” Debbie asks, knowing that Sadie and Charlotte have had a rough few days together.
“Mhhm,” Charlotte responds. “I don’t want anyone to fight.”
Her voice is small and a tad quavery with almost-tears. But after half a movie of seemingly endless bickering and arguing, the words not only hit home with Debbie, but with us, the viewer, as well. We want everyone to stop fighting, too. But there’s still a good deal of film left, meaning we’re not close to kissing and making up just yet.
But not for lack of Charlotte trying, which brings us to the second emotional moment that really stands out. After a huge fight between Sadie and her parents over the use (or lack of use) of her electronics, Charlotte quietly enters her big sister’s room, MacBook, iPad, and the like stacked in her arms. Wordlessly, she places the items on Sadie’s desk and makes to leave. Sadie, bemused and grateful, asks where Charlotte found this stuff. Charlotte shrugs, and in a no-big-deal tone of voice, says, “I stole it.” A moment passes between them, an unspoken surge of love between two sisters who have grown up together. Sadie finally calls out thank you before Charlotte closes the door.
This scene is all the more powerful because of what preceded it — that huge blow-up involving Sadie and her parents. Once again, Charlotte finds herself stuck in the middle of the argument. And again, not fully understanding what’s going on, Charlotte, like any good younger sibling would do, pipes in with an aggravating sing-song voice to tease Sadie in her moment of distress. Sadie lets loose, telling Charlotte to shut up with forceful anger we haven’t heard before. And the reaction on Charlotte’s face is devastating– it makes you wonder if for a minute, she forgot this was pretend and was afraid her sister was truly angry with her.
All of this talk about the youngest member of the cast, it may seem to some as if I were watching a totally different movie.
I know that the movie is about the fears and anxieties of aging. I know it’s about the trials of marriage and maintaining love. I agree with many that this is Apatow’s biggest homage to John Cassavetes yet and also his most personal film. But there’s more to it than that, which is something that I think the initial negative reviews may have missed. (Many chalked it up to being too self-indulgent, but even if it is, I think it works.)
The ordinarily curmudgeonly Richard Brody wrote some surprisingly glowing things about the film and it’s his main point that I want to bring to light because it digs under the surface. Brody writes, “The biggest existential crisis of the movie isn’t life and death, isn’t the fierce devotion to family and the frustration of romantic fantasies, rather it’s that of being of the moment.”
I agree with this idea and think it can easily relate to Charlotte. The other characters learn to be of the moment throughout the course of the film — Pete learns to be more present with his kids and wife, Debbie learns to stop trying to control outcomes and just allow things to happen, Sadie finally finishes “Lost”– but Charlotte is the only one, from start to finish, who is living in the moment. In fact, you see this every time she’s the monkey in the middle of yet another familial fight.
Apatow invites us, whether he realizes or not, to view the movie from Charlotte’s eyes, the eyes of a nine-year-old.
Through her eyes, the movie turns into something more than just a story about marital woes, financial issues, and teenage hormones. It’s something simpler but also heavier than that: it’s about the sadness that comes with feeling alone among the people you love and the longing to fix it, though nothing seems to work.
What does work, Charlotte and everyone else learns, is patience. (We learn patience, too, as the movie is admittedly long.) Patience is key. Eventually, the ship will right itself.
Charlotte is the reminder that these issues that feel like the end of the world are indeed not. Apatow tends to do this by using Charlotte as the comic relief — one memorable instance finds her quipping after another outburst from Sadie, “I hope I never get my period if this is what happens.”
Through Charlotte’s point of view, the happy ending Apatow gives us isn’t gimmicky. It’s a relief; it’s cathartic. With the help of his youngest daughter, he delivers his most sensitive film.