In the 2018 film Beautiful Boy, there is a scene between a father and a son. Well, there are lots of scenes between father and son in this adaptation of two bestselling memoirs. But the one between journalist dad David Sheff (played by Steve Carell) and his twenty-something drug addict son Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) that takes place in the corner booth of a diner is the one to watch.
As directed by Felix Van Groeningen, the five-minute-long scene is specifically engineered to stand out from the rest of the movie – the supposed skeleton key to unlocking Beautiful Boy’s throbbing cinematic heart. As David tries to talk Nic out of his downward spiral, you can picture Van Groeningen storyboarding the scene to within an inch of its life, sanding down its edges to smooth contours safe enough to lick. He cuts quickly, restlessly between the perspectives of David and Nic, never lingering on his performers’ faces, lest we notice that they don’t process the conversation so much as twitch and tick on cue. Lines such as, “This is not you!” and “I didn’t want it to go like this!” are leisurely chucked back and forth, volleying so well because they carry no weight. There are deep sighs and quick glances. Moments of quiet that unintentionally clang.
Conceived as an extremely contemporary, extraordinarily heartbreaking father-son tale – one in which anger and compassion exist in equal measure, in which there are no bad fathers but only misguided actions and misunderstood responses – Beautiful Boy strains to portray modern fatherhood as something layered and interesting. This is not, Van Groeningen seems to be saying over and over, your dad’s Dad Cinema.
Indeed, it’s not – your dad had it much better.
While motherhood hasn’t received the thoughtful, complicated treatment that it deserves, either – with the exception of the occasional Lady Bird or In Her Shoes or Roma – it is especially hard during this Father’s Day weekend to ignore how far Hollywood has gone to dumb its dads down.
A generation or two ago, mainstream audiences had all the messy, interestingly problematic fathers they could handle. Dustin Hoffman’s complicated quasi-hero in 1979′s Kramer vs. Kramer is the obligatory mention, but there were tricky paternal acts being pulled in the first two Godfather films, Paper Moon, Hud, Paris, Texas, To Kill a Mockingbird (which is more complicated than you might recall), Field of Dreams (really), and the entire 70s and 80s oeuvre of Steven Spielberg. Not to mention darker entries such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Costra Gravas’s Missing, and Paul Schrader’s Hardcore – big-studio-bred films that would be impossible to greenlight now. Even the allegedly disposable comedies of the time (Mr. Mom, Parenthood, the National Lampoon’s Vacation series) had some reasonably interesting things to say about fatherly expectations.
They could be goofs, but not caricatures; heroes, but with baggage compelling enough to unpack; scoundrels, but not easy villains. There was depth, messiness and meaning – there was no one kind of movie dad, because movies kept on coming up new lenses through which audiences could view fatherhood.
Today, when almost every other element of Hollywood has been defined by its progressiveness – or at least lip service toward progression – the depiction of dads has defiantly, bizarrely regressed. So much so that there are now three varietals of on-screen fathers: the Sad Dad, the Dumb Dad and the Deadly Dad.
On that first sub-genre, the prime offender is Beautiful Boy. The film’s bare-naked goal of wringing as many tears from you as possible, all while failing to come up with any reason why it should earn your pain, is emblematic of so much of today’s Sad Dad Cinema. Think of the weepy-without-reason men of Interstellar, The Pursuit of Happyness, Ford v. Ferrari and Boyhood, the latter of which has skated by on its decades-in-the-making conceit but cannot hide the fact that Ethan Hawke’s father is a character-less cipher.
The Dumb Dads at least know they are of no real value. Steve Martin acts as the quasi-precursor here, thanks to his breezy but empty Father of the Bride remake and its weaker sequel, both of which ushered in two Cheaper By the Dozens. But Robert De Niro (Meet the Parents, Dirty Grandpa), Will Ferrell (The House, the frighteningly successful Daddy’s Home franchise) and Adam Sandler (Big Daddy, Blended, Bedtime Stories, Click, the Grown Ups movies) also helped drive a bizarre industry hunger for father-absolutely-does-not-know-best entertainment.
And if you’ve seen at least one Liam Neeson movie over the past 15 years, then you are already intimately familiar with the Deadly Dad – fathers who have acquired a very particular set of skills. Skills that they have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make them a nightmare for people like you (kidnappers, sure, but this could also mean moviegoers). See: Denzel Washington (Man on Fire, The Equalizer series), Nicolas Cage (Kick-Ass), Mel Gibson (Blood Father) and even more of Neeson (Taken 1 through 3, but also Run All Night, The Commuter, and last year’s father-who-drives-a-snow-plow-but-also-will-kill-you movie Cold Pursuit).
There are certainly exceptions when it comes to contemporary Hollywood: Sofia Coppola (Somewhere), Spike Lee (He Got Game, Da 5 Bloods), Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story), and the Baumbach-adjacent Wes Anderson, whose wherefore-art-thou-daddy oeuvre requires an essay all his own (for every Rushmore, there is a The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Sometimes, even studio-favored filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and James Gray can trick a mainstream company into making smart and subversive efforts such as Magnolia or The Lost City of Z – but those feats of bait-and-switch are increasingly harder to pull off. Gray’s most recent paternal meditation Ad Astra nearly got lost in the Disney-Fox merger shuffle last year, while Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, arguably the finest examination of fatherhood of 21st-century cinema, was made by a studio division (Paramount Vantage) that no longer exists.
But there are genuine beacons of cinematic hope. You just have to – like everything else in cinema these days – look outside the traditional Hollywood structure.
The complexity of actor Song Kang-ho’s Parasite patriarch still lingers more than a year after that South Korean sensation’s release. As does the self-sacrificing father played by Gong Yoo in Train to Busan, Peter Simonischek’s irresistible prankster in Toni Erdmann, Mahershala Ali’s surrogate father in Moonlight, Lily Franky’s leader of Shoplifters’ family of Japanese thieves, and Jeffrey Wright’s hard-edged brute in this year’s under-seen All Day and a Night. Tzi Ma was remarkable in both last year’s The Farewell and this spring’s Tigertail. And then there’s Johannes Bah Kuhnke’s failure of a father at the heart of Ruben Ostland’s Force Majeur (remade earlier this year as Downhill with … deep sigh … Will Ferrell).
In all the titles above, there is complexity, profundity, and most of all, a genuine sense of artistry to the way filmmakers explore and tear apart what it means to be a father – to be responsible for someone and something greater than yourself, and all the messy tension that results from realizing that intense, eternal truth.
So, this Father’s Day weekend, you and your dad could turn on your favourite giant streaming service in an effort to bond – whether it’s side-by-side on the couch, virtually across Zoom, or with the length of an imaginary hockey stick between you – and find no shortage of recent movies that have simplified the act of fatherhood into 120 minutes of nothingness. Or you could go deeper into the foreign-language or independent digital trenches, and find a family activity that is worth both your time. Cue Harry Chapin’s Cats in the Cradle.
What Is a ‘Dad Movie’?
To be clear, there are dad movies and there are Dad Movies. The former are movies that feature dads, focusing on the family bonds that bind us and so forth. But Dad Movies are something different – films that may or may not feature fathers, but are definitely targeted at patriarchs of a certain generation. I’m thinking, mostly, of my dad – a sixty-something semi-retired father of two who likes to watch movies about fast cars, world wars (either will do), late-life male bonding, men on dangerous missions and anything adapted from the work of Tom Clancy. Ideally, most or all of these movies take place during a pre-smartphone era.
To this point, last year featured a golf-cart load of Dad Movies: 1917, Triple Frontier, The Highwaymen, Cold Pursuit (Liam Neeson is a Dad Movie regular, bested only by Harrison Ford), The Irishman (depending on your dad’s patience), and the granddaddy of 2019 Dad Movies, Ford v Ferrari. Do you have to be a dad to enjoy Dad Movies? Not at all. But if you find yourself one day absentmindedly rewatching Dunkirk or The Shawshank Redemption or Patriot Games or The Bridge on the River Kwai, do yourself a favour: call your own dad and tell him how much you’ve been missing him.
A Movie Dad for Every Situation
As discussed above, contemporary movies are overrun by sad dads, dumb dads and deadly dads. But what movie are you to queue up if you need some fatherly advice that doesn’t involve tears, pratfalls, or butt-kicking? A quick guide:
The birds and the bees dad
First off, do not approach Jim’s Dad from American Pie on this subject, no matter the unique and ultra-Canadian charms of Eugene Levy. Best to talk with the ultra-frank fathers played by Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic or John Krasinski in Away We Go.
Love and marriage dad
I’ll start again with who not to approach for this topic: Adam Driver in Marriage Story. Especially if you just put in drywall. Instead, why not talk with the at-first-tough-but-ultimately-sympathetic father played by John Mahoney in Say Anything, a peripheral movie dad for the ages.
Ignore the Billy Bob Thornton iteration and go straight to Walter Matthau’s original win-at-all-costs grump in The Bad News Bears.
Search and rescue (and helicopter-piloting) dad
Although his family-first actions likely cost hundreds of innocent civilian lives, Dwayne Johnson’s first-responder/state employee in San Andreas did what any father would do, and went out of his way – like, hundreds of miles out of his way – to rescue his daughter as California collapsed into the ocean. Shame about all those other people he could’ve rescued nearby, but what can ya do.
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