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“When ‘Happily Ever After…’ becomes ‘Under Construction Forever After’”*

Review of Ellen Bruno’s Documentary Film, Split Up—The Teen Years

Back in 2013, I reviewed for a documentary titled “Split” from award-winning filmmaker, Ellen Bruno**. Without their parents present and with no commentary by divorce professionals, twelve school-age children of diverse ethnicity and a range of socio-economic backgrounds were interviewed about their experiences of the divorce of their parents. Their unfiltered transparent descriptions gave a needed realistic jolt to parents and divorce professionals as to how children actually process and feel about divorce. That film was destined to become a classic in capturing the short-term effects of divorce on children in a poignant, artistic fashion, complementing the findings of thousands of academic articles that documented similar outcomes over the decades.

Bruno’s new sequel to that documentary—“Split Up: The Teen Years”— revisited and interviewed these same children 10 years later, after they have grown into eloquent and articulate teenagers who are wise and seasoned beyond their years. As in the first film, the children clearly felt safe and comfortable with the interviewer to be able to reveal so much personal and sensitive information. With skillful editing, the gentle reminder of each child’s earlier video interview is artistically and briefly juxtaposed with their current interview, allowing the viewer to relish the transformative development of these young philosophers. Interlaced throughout the video are beautiful impressionistic drawings of the children and creative sketches that expand the message of the film and keep it fresh throughout.  As in the first version of this documentary, this film is subtly divided into sections that reflect and organize the themes of conversations, which include titles such as close to whole; love + hate; what happened?; change; home is a feeling; switching; split; someone else; out of place; hard times; what i need; speaking up; there for me; no fairy tale; and, life goes on.

The perspectives of these youth, as they reflect on how they have fared through the divorce across the years since their childhood, closely map the findings of the several ambitious longitudinal studies that have been published on the longer-term effects of divorce on children, and mirror the collective clinical findings gathered across the past five decades. These teens report how their parents’ divorce (and, for some, multiple divorces) forced them to grow up more quickly, to question the solidity of long-term relationships, to be less trusting, to keep secrets, and to deeply question what is meaningful in their lives. They talk about the challenges in having to switch homes often, in being disorganized, and in having to “code switch” (remembering and adapting to the expectations of two different homes with two different lifestyles). Several report having deeper relationships with each of their parents now, and several report always worrying about their parents’ happiness before their own, leaving them questioning their self-worth and their lovability.

The kids in the first film, Split, were more animated, spunky, and overtly expressive, partly as a result of their young ages, and partly because of the fact that they had no way of knowing what the years ahead would bring for them. In contrast, those kids now as teens, in the current film, are generally more subdued, reflective, and deeply thoughtful. While there clearly is a tragic and sad tone embedded in many of their personal disclosures, that will bring the viewer to tears of empathic sadness, there is also an impressive amount of revealed strength, insight, and perceptiveness about the human condition, coming out of these children of marital dissolutions. And, both implicitly and explicitly, these wise children offer divorcing parents helpful guidelines from the trenches, with their goal being to reduce the damage to other children going through their parents’ divorce.

I would recommend that divorcing parents, divorce professionals, and family court personnel purchase both of these films, as a set, and watch them sequentially, in order to get the full developmental understanding of this artistic documentation of children’s experience of parental divorce.

Split-Up—The Teen Years stands as another fine contribution to our knowledge of the effects of divorce on children and families. Together with Split, they will become classics in our field. Bravo to filmmaker Ellen Bruno for this powerful contribution to our growing knowledge of the effects of parental divorce on children!

*Quote from one of the teenagers in the film.


**Ellen Bruno, an award-winning documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco, is the Producer, Director, and Editor of this film. With a background in international relief work, Ellen’s films have focused on issues at the forefront of human rights, including sex trafficking in Burma, political prisoners in Tibet, the social alienation of people with leprosy, and genocide in Cambodia. Ellen earned an MA in Film at Stanford University. She is a recipient of Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships, a Goldie Award for Outstanding Artists, an Alpert Award for the Arts, an Anonymous Was A Woman Award for the Arts, and was an Artist-in-Residence at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Ellen serves on the Boards of the International Buddhist Film Festival, the Pacific Pioneer Fund, and Ethical Traveler.

To acquire the film, go to:


Donald T. Saposnek

Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D., is a clinical-child psychologist, a child custody and family mediator and a national and international trainer and consultant in child psychology and mediation since 1977. He is the author of the classic text, Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach, and co-author of Splitting America: How… MORE

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