Most film fans don’t have to be told to not see a new Adam Sandler movie. The man frittered away what was left of their goodwill a long time ago. Despite this disdain from dedicated cinephiles (and to their chagrin), Sandler’s movies continue to attract sizable mainstream audiences. Blended will likely be no different, both in terms of its critical reception and its box office take. So making a case for a nonfiction alternative to the movie is not difficult. But that doesn’t mean Blended’s themes can’t be addressed in a serious light, especially considering the film’s subject matter.
The plot concerns Sandler’s character as a single father romancing a fellow single parent (played by Drew Barrymore) at a family resort. To date, typical Sandler flicks have featured him playing either wacky rom-com leads or wacky family men, and this role basically allows him to combine the two types. It’s not clear what, if any, degree of social consciousnesses the people making this movie have (going on their collective track record, probably not much), but the blending of families is a topic that’s only getting more relevant as time goes on.
Divorce rates hover around 50%. Single-parent households are on the rise as well. A natural byproduct of such trends is that more people who already have kids will find each other. It is said that the Gen Xers are a generation of latchkey kids, and broken homes so thoroughly pervade our culture that it’s easy to forget that this is an extremely new phenomenon. Our institutions still aren’t properly equipped to help single parents. But our attitudes have adjusted at a quicker rate. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see a movie or TV show in which custody exchanges and the like are treated as matter-of-factly as possible.
My own parents were both divorced before they met each other (one of them twice!), though they are still with each other, for what that’s worth. None of their previous marriages produced children, so I never had to deal with a blended family situation. That’s not the case for a lot of other families, of course. It’s not the case for Oliver, the 11-year-old narrator of Stepdancing: Portrait of a Remarried Family. As he attests in voice-over and as his parents (and their new partners) affirm in interviews, there’s a lot of adjustment in dealing with two wholly separate living situations.
Stepdancing came out in 1987, the product of Canadian nonfiction company Kensington Communications. Originally made for broadcast on CBC, the doc clocks in at less than a half hour, during which it follows Oliver from his mother’s home to his father’s, then back again, while he pushes to make his dad’s place his main residence. The movie bears all the stylistic quirks of the time, such as a dated theme song with on-the-nose lyrics and dialogue that feels too straightforward and practiced to our more self-conscious, self-aware ears. But it’s a lovely little film, driving at its points without flourish but with terrific empathy.
One thing that a lot of nonfiction can miss today is directness. Either interview subjects are allowed more uncertain pauses, or filmmakers are more liable to capture all of said pauses and keep them in the finished product. There’s an early scene in this film in which Oliver’s step-father plainly states how, on the morning after his wedding to Oliver’s mother, he struck both Oliver and his brother to make them calm down. It’s the kind of scene a modern doc might feel the need to draw out. That lack of overt manipulation is what helps a dated production remain relevant.
It’s almost unfair to stack a nuanced, sympathy-evoking film against an Adam Sandler joint. But Stepdancing, released nearly 30 years ago, still works as an overview of a situation faced by many people in the new paradigm of the family. With its plot centered on an African resort, Blended is as steeped in privilege as all of Sandler’s recent comedies. There doesn’t seem to be any trace of humanity in such characters’ travails. That’s in stark contrast to the warmth that pervades Stepdancing. It’s an extremely overlooked, nigh-on forgotten piece, and it’s worth rediscovering.
Watch the whole film below.