White God: A Dog-Eat-Dog View of Custody

04/06/2015 05:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Custody kids may just be the metaphor for societies' underdogs.

The new feature film White God, is a parable about Europe's challenging immigration issues told through the emotional lens of a messy coming-of-age custody story. Think of a sequel to last year's, What Maisie Knew. Could this be part of a larger genre?

In my work as a therapist in Los Angeles, California, I consistently advocate for the right of children of custody to have A-rated parenting even as they shuttle between two different households and the cultures which require code-switching between them. My message is clear: Childhood should not be compromised by parental separation or divorce.

From its opening chilly scenes in late winter, White God contradicts my bias for a child-focused approach to custody issues. The story opens with a poorly planned exchange of a 'tween girl, an only child, Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her mutt, Hagen, from mother's care to father's home. Whether mother was reasonable or not, it could be argued she was presumptuous to assume it would be acceptable that Lili could take her dog, while she was away at a professional conference with her new husband, for three months.

Lili's burdens are accentuated by parents who clearly have problems communicating. The father, a quality-control inspector at a slaughterhouse, is humorless and emotionally blunted. Frugal, rigid and stingy, he is slow to adapt. Portrayed as a loner and single, he is in desperate need of parenting education to help him understand, first of all that Lili is growing and is no longer a toddler.

The larger context of White God are the political and cultural tensions around assimilation -- or lack of it -- sweeping contemporary Europe when young Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is forced to give up her beloved mongrel because Hagen's mixed-breed heritage is deemed "unfit" by "the state." A hefty fine must be paid in order to keep him, which the father refuses to pay.

Heartbroken, she and the dog Hagen begin a treacherous journey back towards each other, just as Lili eventually does with her father. Meanwhile the unwanted and so-called "unfit" dogs form a pack and rise up under a new leader, Hagen, who has learned in his journey through the streets, underground fighting circuits, and animal control centers how to bite the hand that beats him. After the dogs seize an opportunity to escape and revolt against mankind, courageous Lili may be the only person who can halt this unexpected war between man and pup.

Upset and distraught, Lili rebels and suffers from lack of parental supervision and insensitivity (her mother never even calls), as the dogs suffer horrible indignities. Have quiet bystanders to immigration issues become like the mother with her blasé attitude. Have many of us unwittingly become colluders with the dominant culture?

Mother may have not forgotten how out of touch with his feelings father had been as a spouse in their marriage, but she may have given him too much credit for being able to step up his parenting and tune into the child. Father is only minimally present. There is no one to keep tabs on the extent to which he has hardened and shrunk with the passage of time even as the mother's life moved onto a better place.

Co-parents are routinely encouraged to rise to the occasion and trust that their co-parent will make sound decisions when the kid they share is in the other's care. The good news is father finally comes through by the end of the movie. In the spirit of giving the benefit of the doubt to her co-parent, mother may have overrode her fears by hoping for the best, but was she too cavalier?

Every stage of parenting has its challenges, but custody kids are at greater risk for being over-exposed to adversity. Custody kids routinely grow up too fast because of lack of parental alignment. Parenting from latency to adolescence is hard enough under the best of circumstances. Blunders are to be expected.

Leaving father and daughter to their own devices in this drama, results in a number of short-term disasters. In this battle of flesh and spirit, punctuated by a junior orchestra prepping for a spring recital of the score to Richard Wagner's, "Tannhauser," and scenes that remind me of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, matters devolve from bad to worse for the dog's and Lili's predicaments before turning around.

Lili's and Hagen's neglect that borders on abuse finally steers back to a place of grace. With stunningly choreographed scenes featuring a cast of over 200 canine rescues, all of whom were eventually adopted into good homes, White God is a thrilling and visceral fairy tale.

In this universe custody kids are at risk. White God is a grim view, reminding me of the realistic science fiction of Margaret Atwood, of our world to come in which indignities are routinely visited upon animals and each other by supposed "human superiors" including parents.

White God can be so difficult at times to watch that I don't consider it a spoiler alert to say be patient and stay with it to the finish. Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó presents a masterful work, at times brutal and harrowing, but deeply thought provoking. By the end this dystopic allegory pays off, delivering on many levels.

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