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Wrestling with the pull of fatherhood

Neither warm nor fuzzy, it’s not what you’d think of as a Father’s Day movie.

And I write about it the Sunday before Father’s Day to save that day for celebration.

But at a time in which fatherhood seems in crisis, I see “The Wrestler” as an important movie on the subject.

It’s about failed fatherhood, to be sure.

Maybe the ghost of fatherhood.

But it’s also about what power the expectation of fatherhood has — an expectation of a connection that has a gravitational pull on our hearts.

Rightly praised at the movie’s 2008 release, Mickey Roarke’s performance is outstanding and grizzled.

On the far end of a career in professional wrestling, he’s behind on his rent making what money he can on the B, C and maybe D circuits. In small gyms and VFW halls, he’s greeted as a hero by the hopefuls, has-beens and never-will-bes of the turnbuckle circuit who remember his glory days.

He instantly becomes one of them as they gear up for another show by sharing a trick-or-treat bag full of pills.

His whole life is, in a way, as damaged as the woman Terrie now appearing on anti-smoking commercials — the one who reminds us her cancer-damaged voice is the only one she has had to sing her grandson a lullaby.

A rematch of what once had been the professional wrestling equivalent of Ali-Frazier puts Roarke’s character back into contact with an old friend and, in the fiction of the ring story line, evil nemesis.

A diagnosis of a career-threatening and life-threatening heart ailment leads him to try to strike up a serious relationship with a woman who has always been a for-hire adult playmate. And it leads him back, too, to his biggest real-life nemesis: his ruined relationship with his adult daughter.

At first resisting his advances because he has sought her out over the years mostly when he needed money or was more desperate than usual, she relents in the face of his real and apparent sincerity.

She does so over her own chasm-deep reservations and the strident objections of a lesbian partner intimately aware of the emotional punishment the daughter has received at The Wrestler’s hands.

A wild night causes the Mickey Roarke character to stand up his daughter on what’s to be an outing that cements their reunion.

Too hurt by the repetitive-emotion injury the relationship has always been — a hurt all the more searing because she’d willingly reopened that long tender wound in the hopes of healing — she cuts off all contact with him.

He suffers, she suffers and they suffer.

This isn’t just about fatherhood or daughterhood.

It’s about all damaged family relationships.

A family creates an expectation of affection and connection. If the real thing isn’t there, the haunting ghost of expectation is.

We usually think of children being hurt most of all. But, as in a free-for-all in a wrestling ring, there’s plenty of room for all to get hurt.

And that hurt is perfectly expressed by the word estranged.

I don’t know the answers for combing out all the tangles here: How we try to figure out our own identities in the wrangle or the extent to which family expectations seem restrictive to us as individuals in our web of relationships.

Nor do I fully understand how forces outside our control in the economy or society add extra strain to all of this, other than to say I have a sense they do.

But I also have a sense that those expectations are hard-wired into us regardless.

I have a sense that we ignore them at our own risk and at the risk of others we care for.

And that makes them worth wrestling with, which is one thing “The Wrestler” makes clear.

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