Kramer vs. Kramer is a 1979 American legal drama film written and directed by Robert Benton, based on Avery Corman’s 1977 novel of the same name. The film stars Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, and Justin Henry. It tells the story of a couple’s divorce, its impact on their young son, and the subsequent evolution of their relationship and views on parenting.
The film explores the psychology and fallout of divorce and touches upon prevailing or emerging social issues such as gender roles, women’s rights, fathers’ rights, work–life balance, and single parents.
Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic advertising executive who has just been assigned a new and very important account. Ted arrives home and shares the good news with his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) only to find that she is leaving him. She leaves Ted to raise their son Billy (Justin Henry) by himself, after suffering a nervous breakdown. Ted and Billy initially resent one another as Ted no longer has time to carry his increased workload, and Billy misses his mother’s love and attention. After months of unrest, Ted and Billy learn to cope, only after Billy tests his father into having ice cream instead of dinner, and gets punished for it, and gradually bond as father and son, after Ted apologizes and explains what has happened to his mother.
Ted befriends his neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander), who had initially counseled Joanna to leave Ted if she was that unhappy. Margaret is a fellow single parent, and she and Ted become kindred spirits. One day, as the two sit in the park watching their children play, Billy accidentally falls off the jungle gym, severely cutting his face. Ted sprints several blocks through oncoming traffic carrying Billy to the hospital, where he comforts his son during treatment.
Fifteen months after she walked out, Joanna returns to New York from California to claim Billy, and a custody battle ensues. During the custody hearing, both Ted and Joanna are unprepared for the brutal character assassinations that their lawyers unleash on the other. Margaret is forced to testify that she had advised an unhappy Joanna to leave Ted, though she also attempts to tell Joanna on the stand that her husband has profoundly changed.
The court awards custody to Joanna, a decision mostly based on the tender years doctrine. Devastated with the decision, Ted discusses appealing the case, but his lawyer warns that an appeal would be too expensive and Billy himself would have to take the stand in the resulting trial. Ted cannot bear the thought of submitting his child to such an ordeal, and decides not to contest custody.
On the morning that Billy is to move in with Joanna, Ted and Billy make breakfast together, mirroring the meal that Ted tried to cook the first morning after Joanna left. They share a tender hug, knowing that this is their last daily breakfast together.