'A Different Tree': The single-parent family on screen and in real life
Pearl, the 8-year-old protagonist of the short film "A Different Tree," is the child of a single mother, prompted by a grade school assignment to go in search of her biological father.
At the film's beginning, Pearl's class peers file to the front of the class and, one by one, present their physical family trees — paper cutouts of family photos, moms, dads, siblings .She squirms in her seat, reluctant to present the half-filled tree in her lap.
When the bell rings, she sets off running, determined to make contact with her estranged father. But unbeknownst to her, he has another family, and has problems of his own.
The film was screened at The Crawford Family Forum on Thursday, August 22, leading into a discussion on the struggles single parents and children face, and perceptions of non-nuclear and one-parent families.
KPCC Take Two producer Stephen Hoffman moderated the discussion with the film director Steven Caple, Jr., film writer Victoria Rose, and USC assistant professor Julie Cederbaum.
A child’s quest for roots
Film writer Victoria Rose said she based "A Different Tree" on her life and her own experience tracking down her biological father.
"This film just showed what it's like to get a simple classroom assignment and how difficult it can be," Rose said. "There were a lot of instances when coming from a single parent family made you feel left out."
Director Steven Caple agreed. As a boy growing up without a father, he said, even the smallest things could become painful reminders of absence, such as not having a father to teach you how to play basketball or how to catch ball.
"It all comes down to those specific moments and things that we have to encounter and face almost every single day," he said.
By and large, most single-parent homes are led by women, Hoffman said, citing recent statistics from the Pew Research Center. Of the 40 percent of households where women are the primary breadwinners, more than 60 percent of them were single mothers.
USC assistant professor Cederbaum said as the number of single mother households grow, what's really noteworthy is the changing attitudes toward single parenting. We, as a nation, are becoming more accepting of it.
Single parents households were once thought of as strictly lower-income families or broken homes, Cederbaum said. Today, technology and economic opportunities have allowed women to more easily raise a child on their own, she said.
"But I do think that women are more vilified for being single parents than fathers," she said, adding that often single moms attract more blame, while single-parent fathers are celebrated just for sticking around.
The bottom line, she says, is not whether a child grows up without a father or a mother. What matters are the child's family network and the family’s economic status, she said.
"That network — while it doesn't replace [having both parents] — provides the foundation for having healthy kids," Cederbaum says. "Generally the biggest obstacle for single-parent families is financial."
That was true for Caple, who grew up without a father and had to step in to raise his young sibling while his mother worked as a nurse.
"Growing up like that forced me to grow up faster, having to become a man, living up to certain standards, taking care of my younger sister and having to be the father role model within the house," he said. "That's how I connected to this film and wanted to make this film."
Caple conveys the struggle of his life in Pearl's story, growing up in a home with a single mother working long hours; as an 8-year-old, Pearl is older than her years, carrying the responsibilities of an adult: getting dressed, walking herself to and from school, being her own caretaker.
Communicating and understanding the absence of a support figure can be the hardest part of growing up in a single-parent home, Cederbaum says. And it's not gender-specific, she adds. In Pearl's story, "you can slot in a single dad and I imagine much of the experience of parenting would be very similar," she says.
The film, "A Different Tree" is slated to show on HBO starting January 2014. You can learn more about the film at www.ADifferentTree.com
Steven Caple, Jr., is a 2nd-year MFA student at the USC Cinematic Arts, and one of the youngest in his class. He has previously worked on commercials and feature-length films. His early films have been recognized at Cleveland's Geauga Film Festival and the 2/3rd Film Fest. @stevencapleJR
Victoria Rose is currently earning her MFA at USC in Film Production with emphasis in Writing. There, she received the Jeffrey Jones Writing Scholarship for "A Different Tree." Victoria was selected this spring to direct a short for James Franco and his business partner Vince Jolviette. Upon graduating, she hopes to pursue her dream of writing for film and television, and ultimately give back to those without a voice, specifically children who come from single-parent families.
Julie Cederbaum is an Assistant Professor at the USC School of Social Work. Her work has focused on primary and secondary HIV prevention both within and outside the United States; all of her work has been within a family systems paradigm and utilized short-term therapeutic models.. @uscsocialwork
With contributions by Luis Gomez. This event was produced by Elaine Cha.