That's Just the Way It Is
I didn’t ask to be born.
—Kyle (Daryl Sabara)
When 15-year-old Kyle (Daryl Sabara) dies by his own hand, classmates and teachers find solace in remembering him as never was. Guided by an elegiac suicide note, the community pulls together to mourn and celebrate this life cut short. If their rituals are premised on fiction—the note has been written by Kyle’s high-school-poetry teacher dad Lance (Robin Williams)—well, this is how social satire works.
Just ask Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters, who made this movie back in 1988. Then, it was called Heathers.
That’s not to say World’s Greatest Dad is in any sense a remake or homage. Bobcat Goldthwait’s version of the misread teen suicide story is more intently focused on the titular character. A frustrated writer himself—he has penned several novels, all rejected by publishers—Lance is biding time in the classroom as the movie opens. That his son attends the school where he teaches is only pain piled on top of pain. The kid’s a monster, self-centered and mean, a bully who takes some paltry pleasure in mocking those he perceives as enemies, abusing a submissive “best friend” (Peter, played by Zach Sanchez), and masturbating—apparently incessantly—in his bedroom.
It’s such activity that causes Kyle’s death (he’s into auto-asphyxiation, an activity Lance actually cautions him against), and in order to save the by from unnecessary embarrassment (or more precisely, to save himself from same), Lance undertakes to dress up the circumstances. As he has evidently not seen Heathers, Lance cannot anticipate the mess his fiction will generate. You, however, know pretty much where the lie will take him, as the classmates read the note, take it to heart, and so enhance their own fictions, claiming friendship with the suddenly much-missed victim, admiring his truth-telling (specifically, he hated them all for being phonies), and absorbing the life lesson of his death.
The banality (and unoriginality) of this premise is only exacerbated by Lance’s sad-sack story. He doesn’t spend much time exploring his own sense of gilt or responsibility for Kyle’s pretty much abject misery. Rather, he treats the child as a mystery, unfathomable and unbearable, with little to do with him or his parenting. It’s not the first time the loss of a child has been refigured as an opportunity for a parent’s emotional or ethical growth (see: Ordinary People), but here the heaping of blame and odium onto Kyle is a little disturbing. Where the kid is straight-up unattractive—sweaty, cheerless, cruel, and sex-crazed in an especially yucky adolescent way—Lance is offered up as a man with flaws that, however loathsome, might still be explained and even forgiven.
Aside from suffering from the usual sense of frustration over a career that’s not turned out as he once imagined (a standard storyline for academics in movies), Lance is also going through something like a midlife crisis (also standard). That he seeks self-affirmation in a not-quite-romance with an exceptionally inane colleague, Claire (Alexie Gilmore). She shakes her rump, calls Lance by cutesy terms endearment, and offers sex on a schedule that suits her—that is, when she’s not with the cute new guy on staff, the exquisitely handsome basketball player Mike (Henry Simmons). She is, in a word, entirely tedious, and so you’re encouraged to wait eagerly for the moment when she suffers her comeuppance.
That this moment is doubled up with Lance’s own moral education is hardly surprising. Indicting social networking media, high school counselors, gothy girls, closeted jocks, and Bruce Hornsby fans, not to mention TV talk shows, self-help books, and creative writing classes that encourage students to “express themselves,” World’s Greatest Dad appears determined to rehash clichés and revisit themes that are more than worn out.