Being a father is probably the most complex role in a man’s life. Yet often Hollywood paints the role in simplistic broad strokes. We have the stoic provider, the wayward waster and Darth Vader.
But these five films all take a deeper dive into the sea of challenges we face as fathers — and may even offer some guidance on how we should, and shouldn’t, deal with that responsibility.
Not all these movie dads are good role models for their on-screen kids or watching fathers at home (NB: don’t rob banks to provide for your son). But they all get us thinking hard about what it means to be a dad.
Richard Linklater’s masterpiece is the ultimate coming-of-age movie. Filmed over 12 years, we watch the characters grow in the most realistic fashion ever captured on screen. And as much as being about Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) journey from boyhood to adulthood, it is also about his father Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) growing up. Mason Sr is far from the perfect dad. He’s already estranged from his kids’ mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) when the movie begins and doesn’t seem mature enough to get a grip of the responsibilities of fatherhood. But while he may not spend as much time with his kids as he should, when he is with them he is always emotionally present — unlike his kids’ two stepdads who come and go in a blaze of alcohol and toxic masculinity despite both appearing closer to a stereotypical ‘good dad’ when we meet them. And as we watch Mason Sr grow into the role he admits to his kids came too early in his life, we realize he’s a natural after all.
THE DAD QUOTE: “What’s the point? I mean, I sure as s*** don’t know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We’re all just winging it. The good news is you’re feeling stuff. And you’ve got to hold on to that.”
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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
This film covers both biological and non-biological fatherhood with a depth rarely seen on screen. Struggling janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is unexpectedly landed with the responsibility of looking after his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) following the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). The storyline of an emotionally challenged adult forced to grow up by looking after a child is a well-trodden path in Hollywood, but few films have taken it on with such tenacity and truth. Lee’s backstory and life with ex Randi (Michelle Williams) is slowly unraveled and when we find out the cause of Lee’s trauma, it is even worse than we feared. But there is more to all these characters than their lowest ebb. And even in the toughest times filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan finds plenty of laughs, which is something we can all relate to.
THE DAD QUOTE: “I don’t understand, I can’t be his guardian. I’m just a back-up,”
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BOYZ N THE HOOD
The impact a good father is central to this story of three boys growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s. Of the film’s three central characters — Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr), Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) — only Tre has the influence of a father at home. And while Tre’s dad Furious Styles (Laurence Fishbourne) is just as angry as the three younger men about the injustice in the world, he offers a strong example how to channel this anger into fighting for productive change. The film shows the power of paternal wisdom, even when there is no perfect answer we can offer.
THE DAD QUOTE: “Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children.”
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THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
An ambitious, generation-spanning movie about the impact fathers — whether present or absent — can have on a young man. Luke (Ryan Gosling) is violent criminal trying to be a good father but getting it very wrong — robbing banks and beating up his kid’s decent stepdad, for starters. Avery (Bradley Cooper) is a seemingly upstanding cop but is also channeling his desire to be a good father in the wrong way — thinking furthering his career is enough to make him a better dad. And Avery has dad issues too, with his retired judge father Al (Harris Yulin) disappointed that he has chosen the police force over a law career. As the characters lives intertwine over generations it examines how fathers create their sons, whether through nature or nurture. And while it’s certainly more of a cautionary tale than an inspirational one, its tough themes will get dads thinking hard about what legacy means.
THE DAD QUOTE: “Promise me one thing. Don’t tell him about me.”
Watch now on Netflix
If we’re diving into the tricky waters of fatherhood, where better to finish than a movie that dads can watch with their young children. Finding Nemo follows overprotective widowed clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) as he overcomes a host of fears to save his son Nemo (Alexander Gold). The film is about the extreme anxiety parents — in particular single parents — can face in trusting their kids go out there alone in the big bad world. It captures the helplessness of fatherhood and the tough balance between protecting and smothering your kids. There’s something here for all dads to relate to (apart from the bit about your wife being eaten by a barracuda, perhaps).
THE DAD QUOTE: “I promise to never let anything happen to you, Nemo.”
Watch now on Disney+