Dads (Howard, 2020)

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.

F Scott Fitzgerald, “The Rich Boy”

It is not entirely accurate and hence not entirely fair to use Fitzgerald’s quote from “The Rich Boy” as an epigraph for Bryce Dallas Howard’s documentary encomium on fatherhood. It is hardly Howard’s fault for knowing the dads she knows, and they don’t think they are any better — or different — from the rest of us, even if they can make snap decisions to, for instance, buy a farm if that’s what it takes to help their kids.

The film’s affability goes a long way, but at some point the absence of an antagonist, a conflict, a disagreement, a choice, began to make me restless. Fathers are great, excepting the rare cases when they are cruel abusers. Dads who stay at home are special, but dads who can’t aren’t wrong…just unfortunate.

I am not a Biblical complementarian, so it is not as though I was scouring the film looking for examples of male headship. I do grow weary, if I’m honest, at how self-deprecation has become the default masculine position in mainstream media. Judd Apatow talks of “completely” giving up. Will Smith expresses comedic horror that flat screen televisions come with an instruction manual but couples are sent home from the hospital with nothing.

It’s a funny joke, but like so much of the film it doesn’t really land with force because it isn’t really true. I would counter that there are more instructions than ever for prospective parents: self-help books, birthing classes, pediatric services, cultural mandates for the village to help raise the child. There’s a truthiness about Smith’s joke to be sure; it is probably near universal for men and women to feel unprepared. But is the film setting out what is universal among fathers or what is unique about them? I wasn’t sure. And too much of what the performers told me came across as…performative. Practiced statements of broad platitudes.

Ron Howard offers the only moment in the film that borders on social criticism when he suggests that maybe we should engineer a society in which fathers who go to work to provide for their families didn’t have to do so. But rather than pick up on that thread and ask follow-up questions about specific social policy decisions or cultural values, the film lets it stand as a disclaimer…no criticism is implied of anyone who is a father and might do it differently.

The film has a mix of Black and White dads, gay and straight dads, American and international dads. And they are all likable. They are no different from you and me…excepting they have a movie to celebrate their normalcy.

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