In 1979, America was just beginning to see the effects of the women's movement on the american family. There was a great amount of role reversal in the home, and the divorce rates had begun to skyrocket. In "Kramer vs. Kramer", we witness the collapse of a marriage that before, in a more typical movie, would see the man walking out on the woman, leaving her to support and raise their child alone, but now sees the woman leaving, as she feels unfulfilled in life and wants something better (there aren't necessarily any villains in this movie, only victims). Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is the husband, climbing his way up the corporate ladder, making great business contacts while his family contacts languish. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) is the wife, and the only reason she's stayed with him so long is her love for little Billy, their son. As the film opens, it's come to the point where her desperation and unhappiness have surpassed even the love for her son, and she's packing to leave. Ted arrives home, high on the news he may be made a V.P. at work, completely unaware of his wife's condition or their situation. "She's ruined one of the five best days of my life" he complains, after she's walked out on him (notice the emphasis is all on him). In the midst of all this selfishness, no one seems to notice that Billy has been virtually abandoned by both parents. No, he's no Oliver Twist: he has a home, he has food and clothing, and he wants for nothing, but the adults in his life, the people who are supposed to be foundation of his very person, are letting him down in a most cruel way. Being forced together, Ted and Billy must interact without the motherly intermediary present, and it's a learning experience for both father and son. Ted goes from ignoring his son and being largely dismissive to realizing just how valuable that child is to his existence, and how much that child depends on him for literally everything. It's only after the immensity of this "parenthood thing" dawns on Ted that Joanna comes back into the picture, and after a 18-month absence, sues Ted for custody of their son.
Perhaps it takes becoming a parent to truly realize the stakes of a movie like Kramer vs. Kramer. There are few things more powerful than the love a parent has for their child (I know I would without hesitation give my life for my daughter, and even a thought of some harm be-fouling her can put literal, physical tears in my eyes almost in an instant), and yet as parents, we are capable of so much destruction in these little lives. The extent to which we can emotionally cripple our own offspring is both shocking and horrifying. They're little people, very small physically, and sometimes it's easier to ignore them while focusing on our own needs, and not even realize what it is that we're doing until it's too late. Even though I've never gone through a divorce, I can empathize with the emotions this movie projects. Parenthood is perhaps the less glamourous of the 'big emotions' that make for movie material (Death and Romantic Love usually get all the glory), but parenthood is just as powerful, just as devastating as any other great mystery of life.