If you’re a writer there’s a good chance you’re a procrastinator.
Case in point, I’m writing this post about “Goodbye Christopher Robin” a month after seeing the film at its New York premiere.
Procrastination isn’t the same as laziness, which is not to say that procrastinators and writers can’t be lazy. Many are. Procrastinating writers might procrastinate from an absence of inspiration. Or an abundance of pressure, say from a loved one or editor who just wants you to, you know, write something. But you really don’t need or want me to explain a writer’s torment.
For that, you can see “Goodbye Christopher Robin.”
At one point in the film Margot Robbie as Daphne, the wife of beloved children’s author A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), nearly spits in exasperation at her procrastinating writer husband, “You are a writer who doesn’t write!”
Sound familiar, writer dads? Maybe just a little? For the record, my wife has never nearly spit at me in exasperation about my procrastinating. She’s more matter of fact.
The movie also explores the relationship between Milne and his son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) as together, in Hundred Acre Wood-like Ashdown Forest in Sussex, they invent the world of Winnie-the-Pooh and in the process figure out how to be father and son.
A Love Letter to Family
“A love letter to family” is how director Simon Curtis described “Goodbye Christopher Robin” before the premiere, and certainly that’s true if the love letters you’re accustomed to writing or getting are filled with uncertainty, awkwardness, anguish, and regret. And yes, laughter and love, too.
But for me, in addition to giving an unflinching look at the life of a writer, the film was less a love letter to family and more a wake-up call for dads.
I saw the movie with my own 11-year-old son, who like Christopher Robin is a knowing and occasionally smart-mouthed boy. So during a series of scenes that dwelled on one of Milne’s extended periods of procrastination, the author offhandedly says to his son one evening, “Have you said your prayers?” To which Christopher Robin responds, “Have you done your writing?”
My son looked at me. He was amused. I was amused. Meanwhile, back in the movie, the author and his son were likewise amused. When your son knows you almost better than you know yourself you’ve leveled up to a richer state of parenting, whether you know it or not.
“Sometimes when you’re doing your writing, you shut me out.”
The relationships in the movie fray and heal against the backdrop of a joyful origins story that explores the evolution of Winnie-the-Pooh on several levels: How Pooh and his friends evolved from stuffed animals into the well-developed characters we love; how the early sketches of the characters, as realized by Milne’s illustrator buddy Ernest (Stephen Campbell Moore playing real life Winnie-the-Pooh illustrator E.H. Shepard, who gets more credit in this movie for the realization of Pooh than perhaps history has given him) are developed into the indelible pencil drawings they are; and how the very names of the characters came to be.
The origins story is virtually a movie within the movie, so much so that you’re momentarily distracted from the irony: The more famous Milne and Christopher Robin get from Winnie-the-Pooh — the very thing that brought them together — the more they drift apart.
At one point as they’re drifting Milne tries to justify to his son, “You asked me to write a book,” to which his son replies, “A book for me, not about me.” It’s biting in a way any dad will understand, but especially writer dads.
After the movie I naturally asked my son what from the movie reminded him of our relationship.
“Well, when the dad was in a bad place,” he said — referring to Milne’s post World War I shell shock — “they hung out and he helped him through it,” and I knew my son was thinking in particular about this summer, when he and I hung out the day my father passed away. Christopher Robin is in touch with his dad’s feelings in a way my son is with mine, something other dads ought to find relatable, too.
I probably should have stopped there but I said to my son, “what else from the movie reminded you of us, good or bad?” And he goes, “sometimes when you’re doing your writing you shut me out — when I want to give you a hug for doing a good job — because you’re so focused on your work.”
That’s exactly how he said it and it nearly killed me right outside the theater.
And then of course, with the wound open, I had to dig my finger into it and say “I thought you were going to say the Finger Lakes trip,” referencing a weekend he and I spent in upstate New York two years ago, and he said, “yes that too,” reminding me that he cried at the end of that trip because I had spent too much time looking at my phone and not enough living in the moment with him.
The anguish and regret from that moment came back to me and I found myself re-explaining to him that I had to take notes and pictures and do social media posts for that trip, and he in turn wound up for another upper cut as he re-explained to me that “I know you have a job and you’re supposed to do it and it still was a father and son trip but it was a father and son trip and a phone.”
But a few seconds later he cut me a break. “I understand you have a hard job and when you can’t think of something you get stressed out. It’s hard coming up with things people will like or enjoy or want to hear about.”
What makes this whole thing a little meta is that at that moment, still a few feet from the theater where we had seen a movie about a father not being present for his son, I was taking notes on my phone to capture my son’s quote about the anguish he felt from my taking too many notes on my phone two years ago.
“So what,” I finally thought to ask him two years later, “would you have done differently on that trip?”
“Well,” he said, “you could have done the social back at the hotel, not when we were in the middle of doing something fun,” and of course he was right.
And that’s a snapshot of what fathering my son is like, emotional, but happy a lot of the time, which is, by the way, how my son described the movie. And he’s right about that, too.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” will stay with you, if you’re a procrastinator, if you’re a writer, and especially if you’re a dad. By the time we got home from the movie it was rather late. My son started in on the homework he still had to do and I’m not entirely sure what I was doing, but about an hour later I asked him, as I always do, “Did you get ready for bed?” And being the smart-mouth he occasionally is, he answered my question with a question.
“Did you finish your writing?”
Two more things
- Kelly Macdonald from “Boardwalk Empire” and “Brave” plays Christopher Robin’s nanny and aside from the fact that Kelly Macdonald can do no wrong onscreen she has the funniest, most deeply cutting so-worth-waiting-for line in the film.
- Fellow Traveling Dad Jeff Bogle has written a far more focused article about the movie itself, Take A Trip Back in Time to Say Goodbye Christopher Robin. And a line from Jeff’s post, “the film has the potential to make us finer dads and moms,” is what inspired this one.
I was invited to the New York premiere of Goodbye Christopher Robin, but all opinions expressed herein are my own.