(USA, 87 min.)
Dir. Bryce Dallas Howard
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
“Finish this sentence,” director Bryce Dallas Howard instructs her celebrity interviewees. “A dad is…”
Dads are a lot of different things as funny fatherly figures like Jimmy Fallon, Neil Patrick Harris, Patton Oswalt, Will Smith, Conan O’Brien, Hasan Minhaj and Kenan Thompson each find the words to describe either their fathers or themselves as fathers. Some men choose to take the lighter side and acknowledge the universal truth that dads are embarrassing. Others look beyond the obvious dad jokes and share the deeper questions they’ve asked themselves since becoming fathers. Will the kids need therapy? Will they be safe? What determines whether one is a good parent or a bad one? Dads gets inside the heads of parents-to-be who’ve wrestled with the daunting reality of bringing new life into this world.
Howard adds her family history to mix by including the voices of her filmmaker father Ron (who produced this year’s TIFF opener Once Were Brothers) and her brother Reed as he discovers the role of father-to-be (and becomes a full-fledged daddy by the end of the film). It’s obvious from the loving relationship onscreen that Ron Howard did it right when it comes to being a dad, and seeing his daughter follow in his footsteps as a filmmaker, and delivering a respectable feature directorial debut to boot, illustrates the value of maintaining work/ life balance and knowing where one’s priorities are.
Dads features some intimate footage of the Howard family. A camera seems to be as constant a fixture in Ron’s personal life as it was his professional one. He and his wife, Cheryl, documented their pregnancies extensively amassing a VHS archive of ultrasounds and “birth videos” long before millennial parents clogged Instagram with “gender reveal” posts and nauseating “bun in the oven” memes. The normalcy and stability of the Howard family life inspires Bryce to reflect upon the practical reality of being a father in a society in which men are traditionally expected to go to work and be the breadwinners while mom stays at home and tends to domestic affairs.
Not everybody can afford to be as omnipresent as a Howard can be, and Dads is very much aware of the privileged background from which its director emerges. Howard explores contemporary masculinity and how the role of the father is changing by incorporating the stories of everyday/non-celebrity fathers into her chorus of proud parents. While the comedians land some good zingers, the heart and depth of the film comes from the stories of fathers who pledge themselves to their children by becoming stay at home dads or by pulling double-duty and sacrificing their personal lives to tend to their kids. There are great stories here that challenge the traditional (and simplistic) image of fatherhood, ranging from the portrait of a gay couple that adopts four children and raises them on a farm in order to create a hospitable environment, or one particularly compelling sequence about a father who commits everything towards helping his son lead a healthy life.
Social media figures prominently in many of these stories as the dads both famous and not-famous convey their urge to share every moment of fatherhood via blogs, YouTube videos, posts, and memes. Every single aspect of a child’s life is now documented on parents’ hilariously self-conscious social media channels. These controversial examples of oversharing and public displays of parenthood, as annoying as they are for childless social media users, provide life-lines for many of the dads in the film. The one unanimous thread that Howard finds across the stories is the overwhelming sense that nothing prepares a person to be a parent. With no guides, user manuals, or rule books, daddy bloggers help ease the intimidating fear of fatherhood while normalizing the image of the stay at home dad.
Howard keeps the spirit of the film light and sharp. The celebrity interviews are bright and bubbly with colourful backgrounds lifting up tone, while the film keeps it real on the ground with the average Joes. Howard’s approach is refreshing in its inclusivity as she incorporates international stories, tales from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and perspectives from working dads, gay dads, and single dads. The film doesn’t have the answers for what it takes to be a great parent, and nothing could possibly explain that, but it might inspire a phone call home to say thanks to mom and dad.