In 2009, I became a father. Then again in 2012, and a third time in 2015. Each time, I had to relearn what it meant to be a dad to this particular person, a brand new human being who had entered the world and was now under my responsibility and care. I absolutely love being a dad. And even as I attempt to type these sentences, my youngest child has entered the room demanding to watch a TV show and to have a glass of water. Hold on.
Okay. It is now over a week later since I wrote the above paragraph, because parenting and working in these extraordinary and anxious times of the coronavirus pandemic takes the majority of my attention. I imagine I’m not alone. To help our children navigate the present global crisis, to help them feel safe and know they are deeply loved, to protect them and care for them and help them find some sense of stability and comfort in so much uncertainty—this is what matters. Watching Bryce Dallas Howard’s documentary, Dads, was a delightful affirmation of this parental vocation. It is, in short, endearing. Structured around a handful of stories Howard has chosen from across the globe, the film is also interspersed with individual interviews with famous comedic celebrities who also happen to be dads. We hear from Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Will Smith, Patton Ostwalt, Neil Patrick Harris, Kenan Thompson, and Judd Apatow, among others. But the biggest fatherly presence of all is Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning director and father to Bryce. Indeed, Dads feels like a personal ode to the elder Howard, as well his own father (Bryce’s grandfather), as they share their wisdom about fatherhood and what it means to be a good dad.
Dads is amusing, affecting, and cute, if not a bit simplistic. It quickly establishes a recognizable rhythm: begin with celebrities riffing on a topic or question, then show a montage of funny social media posts about dads, followed by focusing on an individual story about father from somewhere in the world. Then, repeat. The stories of everyday dads are emblematic of the film’s larger thesis: we need to reimagine traditional and detrimental conceptions of “fatherhood” in our 21st-century world. You can be a stay-at-home dad, a single dad, a gay dad—what matters most is being a present and loving dad. Dads drives home this point ad nauseam, often in a platitudinous manner. It can feel a bit patronizing, if not paternalistic, to have famous celebrities posit their bits of wisdom into the camera about How To Dad, as if handing these ideas down from on high to the lowly audience despite being non-experts (beyond just being dads themselves). Indeed, like parenting itself, Dads is at its best when it stops focusing on telling us what to do and just shows us the beautiful messiness of fatherhood. The individual stories of real-life non-celebrity dads are often inspiring and certainly affecting; I had tears in my eyes on more than one occasion.
Near the conclusion of Dads, comedian Hasan Minhaj asks a fascinating question of himself and the audience: who decides if he’s been a good father, himself or his children? It’s hard to answer. Are there any established standards, a sort of Dad Handbook which offers us a picture of how to do this parenting thing successfully? In Christianity, we do have the image of God as “Father.” But the metaphor is often laden with difficulties. Linking “God” and “Father” can associate any issues with our flawed parental figure with our spirituality (e.g. if our father was abusive or absent, what does this say about God?). But Jesus also addressed God as Father, even as Abba, or “Daddy.” There is an approachability and relational quality to such designations—the best dads are a beloved “Daddy.” Which brings me back to Howard’s Dads—when it’s not being a How-To-Dad film, it is a kaleidoscopic celebration of genuinely good fathers, at-once affecting and affirming. Good fathers are not perfect fathers; the best fathers recognize and own their personal failings and inadequacies. They guide and champion their children and partners, humbly striving to be better as a father with each new day. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make my children breakfast.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10883124/