'Dads': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Raises the bar for fatherhood.
9/6/2019

Director Bryce Dallas Howard explores the meaning of modern fatherhood in her new documentary.

There are few places where one can go to learn how to be a good parent, yet it’s among the most important jobs there is. With the documentary Dads, actress-turned-director Bryce Dallas Howard's exploration of fatherhood in today's world, there’s at least one more place where dads (and moms) can turn. Assembling interviews from celebrity fathers like Will Smith, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Hasan Minhaj — as well as her own dad, Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, who serves as a producer here — the film is an optimistic yet affecting exploration of how fatherhood has evolved over the years and how far it still needs to go.

Dads premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has since been acquired by Apple. While this is Howard's feature directing debut, she has made a number of short films and recently helmed an episode of Jon Favreau’s forthcoming Star Trek live-action television series The Mandalorian.

The doc reels us in with casually dressed famous men standing center-stage in front of a greenscreen backdrop that renders as vibrant oranges, yellows and reds. They share witty and surprisingly reflective anecdotes about their fathers and their children (Minhaj wants to know what his Rotten Tomatoes score is as a dad).

Howard uses these celeb interviews to lay the groundwork for the real meat: telling the intimate stories of five average-Joe dads from the U.S., Brazil and Japan. With comedians and actors serving as the doc’s talking heads, one might expect a film that’s saccharine and sanitized. But by including the voices of fathers who don’t have the privileges that come with fame, Howard deftly moves the doc into deeper emotional territory without losing its earnest tone.

As Dads progresses, you can’t help but think about your own father, how he showed up during your childhood or didn’t. Howard clearly knows this and allows space for the audience to reflect. She follows each of the mini dad docudramas with viral footage — reaction videos when dads learn their partners are pregnant, kids of all ages getting upset with the ways they’re being disciplined and a sampling of smartphone-sized goofy dad antics. 

What’s most compelling about Dads is the smart choice to build the doc around the stories of everyday fathers. Most of them are men of color and the two white men featured are a gay couple raising four adopted black children. It’s one thing to hear Jimmy Kimmel tearing up about his sick child, but quite another to hear a stay-at-home dad in Japan admit that he once considered suicide when a debilitating illness stopped him from earning money for his family.

In addition, by highlighting two black men with different life circumstances — a stay-at-home dad of three small kids whose wife is the breadwinner and a father who co-parents with his son’s mother although they’re not together — Dads also delivers an unexpected blow to stereotypes about absentee black fathers that often go unexamined. Each of these real-life dads reveals a fatherhood that’s slowly becoming more commonplace in society (and in film): fathers apologizing to their kids, dropping off their kids at school and doing housework with their kids pitching in.

Howard also includes the child-rearing stories of her father, grandfather and brother Reed Cross Howard. (We watch the latter Howard go from being an expectant father struggling with a car seat to giving his newborn daughter a bottle.) Ron Howard, of course, played Opie, the son of Sheriff Andy Taylor, on The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s, and this fictional dad-son relationship defined fatherhood for a generation of viewers. The doc's director Howard leans into these familial ties — it's clear her dad helped inspire her to make this film — inserting her own voice into the interviews at times, not to mention showing clips from the home videos of her birth and the birth of her three siblings.

But something important is missing from the film: Dads doesn’t say enough about the privilege of parenting as a man in our society. Many mothers, including former first lady Michelle Obama, have pointed out that the bar is frustratingly low; fathers are rewarded for doing the bare minimum when it comes to raising their children, and when they make mistakes, they often get a pass that isn’t afforded to mothers. (See Laura Dern playing a divorce lawyer in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story for a recent pop culture explainer on this.)

The historic lack of active engagement in parenting by fathers is the main reason why this movie feels so fresh in the first place. A documentary focused on motherhood would have a much higher bar to clear to feel as original. Ironically leaving out at least some discussion of this double standard reinforces the low expectations we already have for fathers.

Still, Dads covers important ground mainly because it manages to include several points of view without feeling overstuffed; it’s one of those rare docs that could probably have gone longer than its 81 minutes without losing steam.

Production companies: Imagine Documentaries, Dove Men + Care
Distributor: Apple
Director: Bryce Dallas Howard
Producers: Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Michael Rosenberg, Justin Wilkes, Walter Matteson, Bryce Dallas Howard
Executive producers: Kelly Mullen, Giles Morrison, Meredith Kaulfers, Marc Gilbar, Sara Bernstein
Director of photography: André Lascaris
Music: Sami Jano

Editor: Andrew Morreale
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)

Rated PG, 81 minutes