The Film “We Bought a Zoo” and Single Parenting Issues

We Bought a Zoo is a 2011 comedy-drama film that follows the life of a single-parent family aiming to start a new life after the passing of the mother. The father, Benjamin Mee, faces many sociological issues throughout the film, including dealing with his loss and the pressure from the society, single parent struggles, as well as the parent-child conflict, which becomes crucial to the resolution of the film’s central conflict.

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The first act of the film takes place six months after the death of Benjamin’s wife with whom he had two kids: 7-year-old Rosie and 14-year-old Dylan. After quitting his job as a reporter and finding out that Dylan has been expelled from school, Benjamin decides to start a new life in another place and buys a house with 18 acres of land which contain a medium-sized zoo. He struggles to find the balance between the interests of his two children and doubts his ability to take care of them, while at the same time dealing with the traumatic loss of his wife and the lack of stable income.

Trauma and the Pressure from the Society

Right from the start of the story, we see that Benjamin’s primary strategy for dealing with his wife’s death is avoidance. He avoids going to places they used to visit and avoids speaking about her with other people, including his children. Evidently, the lack of support is damaging for the kids, especially for Rosie, as she keeps trying to engage other people in a conversation about her mother.

The society, on the other hand, tries to force Benjamin into moving on and finding a new partner. Benjamin does not follow the suggestions and ignores the flirtation of single mothers that he sees while driving kids to school. Nevertheless, at the end of the movie, he brings his children to the café where he met his wife and starts a romance with the head caregiver of the zoo. The film shows that these changes are the result of Benjamin solving the issues with his children and fulfilling his role as a single parent.

Struggles of a Single Father

The primary focus of the film is therefore on the relationship between Benjamin and his children, as well as on his acceptance of his new role as a single parent. Simon describes that struggles of parenting are very widespread in American families and are especially prominent in single parents, who “report higher levels of depression and emotional distress than married and cohabiting parents” (43), which is primarily due to the “extraordinarily high financial cost of raising a child to adulthood these days” (43). Gongla and Thompson, on the other hand, explain other reasons for such difficulties, such as the responsibility overload, task overload, and emotional overload (413-414).

They demonstrate that the loss of one parent leads to the bearing of all responsibilities, tasks, and emotional demands of the children by the remaining parent, causing severe stress and exhaustion. This is exactly what we see in We Bought a Zoo: right from the first scene it is established that Benjamin cannot cope with the number of tasks at hand: he forgets to make school lunches for kids, does not help Dylan with his homework, and so on. As a result, Benjamin doubts his capability to care for his children, a phenomenon that Gongla and Thompson describe as role strain, “cognitive stress, generated when the single parent feels unable to comply with normative expectations” (413). And, whereas studies show that “living in a single-parent family doesn’t necessarily harm children” (Gongla and Thompson 411), in We Bought a Zoo the children are definitely affected by Benjamin’s circumstances.

Parent-child Conflict

Despite being older than his sister, Dylan experiences severe stress and shows signs of depression from the beginning of the film. He tries to communicate his feelings through art by drawing decapitated and misshapen figures; however, Benjamin ignores the signs of Dylan’s struggles due to being preoccupied with his own problems. The climax of the film reveals that Benjamin intentionally avoids his son due to the boy’s striking resemblance to his deceased mother. Moreover, he expects Dylan to act more maturely about the change in circumstances and to help to alleviate some of the responsibilities that Benjamin now carries on his own, which is a usual practice among many single parents (Gongla and Thompson 413-414).

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We Bought a Zoo examines many underlying issues faced by single-parent families and creates circumstances for the characters to overcome those problems. For instance, the death of the oldest tiger in the zoo brings Dylan and Benjamin back together and establishes a more supportive and understanding relationship within the family. Overall, the film addresses real struggles of parenting without romanticizing it, which is quite uncommon for the media (Simon 41). The positive ending of the story stresses the importance of family unity and support, showing how overcoming the sociological issues on a household level can lead to a new start following a devastating loss.

Works Cited

Gongla, Patricia A. and Edward H. Thompson. “Single-Parent Families.” Handbook of Marriage and the Family, edited by Suzanne K. Steinmetz and Marvin B. Sussman, Plenum Press, 2013, pp. 397-418.

Simon, Robin W. “The Joys of Parenthood, Reconsidered.” Contexts, vol. 7, no. 2, 2008, pp. 40-45.

We Bought A Zoo. Directed by Cameron Crowe, performances by Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, and Angus Macfadyen, 20th Century Fox, 2011.

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