Tonight, for one night only, Focus on the Family’s new documentary, Irreplaceable, will be shown at theaters in more than 700 locations across the United States. Irreplaceable follows the executive director of Focus on the Family New Zealand, Tim Sisarich, as he travels around the world searching for the answers to two vital questions: “What is family?” and “Does family still matter in today’s society?”
Along the way, Sisarich interviews a host of top scholars and writers from a wide range of disciplines, including Roger Scruton, Helen Alvaré, Ashley McGuire, Jonathan Last, Anne Moir, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Eric Metaxas, and Linda Malone-Colon. The documentary, and the small group curriculum called The Family Project that builds on the questions it raises, present an articulate and accessible compilation of the best analysis from traditionally minded scholars studying the family, its impact on society, and the factors contributing to its decay. As the film progresses, it becomes more theological, sending an empowering message of Christian hope and redemption.
What’s Wrong with the Family?
The first section of the film is divided into five parts, each examining a key element accelerating the breakdown of the traditional family: Sexuality, Marriage, Parenthood, Children, and Fathers. The film logically walks through the sections, connecting the dots from the hook-up culture to no-fault divorce, from extreme feminism to sex-selective abortion. “When you devalue sex, you devalue marriage,” summarizes Sisarich. “When you devalue marriage, you devalue the role of being a parent. And when you devalue being a parent, you devalue children.” Driven by his personal experiences, Sisarich concludes with an extended look at fatherhood, saying the absence of supportive fathers in the home is at “the very root of the problems our society faces today.”
The film is at its best when it connects philosophical, sociological, and psychological analysis with Sisarich’s story on a personal level. In the section on sexuality, for example, Sisarich interviews Joanna Hyatt and Elizabeth Marquardt, who share their research on the rise of the hook-up culture and its emotional effects. Sisarich takes in this information and processes it, quite plainly, as a father.
Hyatt: “You’ve got kids who are engaging in sexual activity, you’ve got kids who are experimenting, you know, they’re hooking up in college . . . But then when these kids are asked, in the privacy of research, “What does this actually make you feel? Do you enjoy this? Are you happy?” Time and again, the answer is “No.” And that, I think, is what surprises me—that these kids are dissatisfied, and yet they continue to do it, which tells me the pressure is huge . . .”
Sisarich: “This whole thing makes me a bit scared . . . I think about my little girl. Is there any hope for me, as a parent, to keep them from this hookup?”
Marquardt: “One of the things that we can see more clearly than ever, is how vital having the love of your father—the daily, present love of your father in your life is just priceless for a little girl. In terms of understanding that she has value, that she is worth being treated well—that love and that trust and that presence, it helps her grow into being able to do that, someday, when she’s ready, with the next big man in her life."
Hyatt: “As a dad, the way you treat her is going to set the bar for how she will expect other men to treat her. Research backs me up on this, that the father-daughter relationship has so many ramifications for other relationships down the road. So I think the way you treat her, in terms of just showing her respect, and loving her in a way that is appropriate, and demonstrating what tenderness looks like, you know, all of those things—your example is going to be huge.”
I couldn’t help but think of my own dad during this scene. His unconditional love for me, and the respectful way he treats my mom as his equal partner, gave me the confidence and sense of self-worth that enable me to build a strong relationship with my husband today.
I’m getting personal here, I know. But that’s exactly what this film does so well: it compels the viewer to connect the social science, theology, and philosophical anthropology that the film presents so articulately with the concrete realities of one’s own family life.
A Personal Approach
At the beginning of the film, Sisarich identifies himself as a Focus on the Family employee, and his wife, children, and extended family members all appear in the movie. This open, honest approach is a welcome one. Often, Christian filmmakers try to use the struggles of a fictional character to convey a predetermined message, with varying degrees of emotional credibility. As James Tillman recently reflected here at Public Discourse, this kind of well intentioned approach can sometimes lead to bad art. In a 1956 letter, Flannery O’Connor counseled a friend who wanted to write meaningful fiction:
You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply . . . with a character or anything that you can make come alive, and when you have a character he will create a situation and his situation will suggest some kind of resolution as you get into it. Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.
O’Connor is referring to the art of writing fiction, not the art of filming a documentary. Yet the development of Sisarich’s journey, which provides the movie with a central narrative arc, seems to have undergone a similar creative process. The best moments in the film are the ones in which Sisarich truly seems to discover meaning, rather than heavy-handedly imposing it.
In the scene quoted above, for example, Sisarich’s love for his daughter and his desire to do whatever he can to protect her feels real and believable. When Sisarich acts surprised at the existence of sex-selective abortion in China, by contrast, his ignorance seems feigned. It is hard to believe that someone in his professional position could be unaware of such human rights abuses, and this note of insincerity detracts from the impact of the horrors being described. Similarly, the Christian testimonials toward the end of the film feel a bit heavy-handed at times.
When I asked Focus on the Family’s Glenn Stanton about the film’s background and Sisarich’s role in its creation, Glenn told me that he and Leon Wirth, his co-author, “developed the idea and wrote the general scripts.” Although they held auditions for professional actors, they decided to ask Tim Sisarich, a long-time friend and colleague, to act as host and narrator. As the project unfolded, Tim’s life began to shape the movie in unexpected ways.
In the last half of the film, Tim reveals that his own father went to prison for embezzlement, struggled with alcoholism, and carried on a series of extramarital affairs. According to Glenn:
When we started this project, we had no idea that was going to end up being part of the story. Much of this really came up while we were working on the project. In Tim’s life, [discovering and coming to terms with his father’s infidelity] was a parallel event . . . It took us a while to appreciate that maybe these two things were happening at the same time for a reason. So we rewrote parts of the second half to include this bigger part of the story . . .
While the interviews in the first two-thirds of Irreplaceable are scholarly and intellectual, with almost no mention of religion, the interviews in the final portion become increasingly spiritual. The focus shifts away from rigorous analysis of social trends and evolves into a more personal tale as Sisarich grapples with his father’s actions, eventually finding forgiveness through the story of the Prodigal Son.
Hope for All
In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Tim interviews an elderly man named Gene Wohlberg. After a beautiful montage of Gene visiting and comforting the sick, Gene humbly tells Tim, “I am probably the best teacher that ever existed. All you have to do is listen to all the mistakes I’ve made, do a 180, and you’ll be just fine.” With self-deprecating humor, Gene tells the story of his whirlwind courtship with his wife of thirty-five years, Anne.
Gene goes on to tell of a dark time when he put his own desires first and left Anne for another woman. Although he was gone for six months, his wife never lost faith that he would return. Eventually, he did, and the two attended therapy five times a week to heal their broken marriage. “The pain that I caused Anne,” Gene says slowly, “is my pain today. I think I will live with that for the rest of my life.” He continues:
There is no place that you can go that you can’t get back. The story of the prodigal—my story . . . I don’t know anyone who could have made more mistakes in life than I did . . . I’ve come so far in life only because I had so far to go. You can be forgiven. God, that’s what he does. He came for guys like me, the prodigal. That’s why Jesus came, that’s his story. He came to this earth to be our father.
Tim, in a moment of raw vulnerability, tells Gene, “I am like one of your sons, in a sense,” the son of an unfaithful father. “What you offer someone like me, as the son . . . is hope for all.” Tim pauses, holding back his emotion with difficulty. “Thank you,” he says, quietly but forcefully.
Called to Love
In the end, Irreplaceable expresses the truth that the sin and brokenness tearing apart the family all come from within the individual human heart. As Sisarich returns home, he reflects:
I set out on a journey to find out what’s wrong with the family, and I came to a conclusion. I am. I haven’t loved the way He loves me. We as Christians haven’t loved the world, the prodigals, even one another the way He calls us to love.
But that isn’t the end of the story—not really. To restore loving family life to the heart of our culture, we must begin with ourselves—one family, one person at a time. “Despite our mistakes,” says Sisarich fervently, “love can still transform us. And only then will we begin to transform the world around us.” Irreplaceable imparts a powerful reminder that every person, with the help of God’s love, has the capability to begin that transformation.
Serena Sigillito is Managing Editor of Public Discourse. She holds a BA in English from the University of Dallas and an MA from the Catholic University of America.