In the early 20th century, Sonora Smart Dodd wanted to pay homage to her father, a war veteran and widower who raised six kids. The industrious Dodd rallied support from local businesses and civic institutions in her hometown of Spokane, Washington, to convince the city to proclaim the third Sunday in June — which was June 19, 1910 — as the first Father’s Day, making it a companion to the recently established Mother’s Day. Overtime, the new holiday gained public support with Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge extolling its virtue. While the holiday continued to have strong popular appeal through the 20th century, it would not be till 1972 that the federal government officially proclaimed the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day.
In films, fathers often face equally complex trajectories in their journey to become a hero to their kids. Two upcoming films beautifully illustrate the complex lives of dads. In Academy Award-winning director Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater (in theaters 7/30), Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, an oil-rig roughneck from Oklahoma who travels to Marseille to try and get his daughter out of jail for a murder she insists she's innocent of. In the process, Baker finds everything he believed about being a father turned inside out.
In Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Morgan Neville explores the powerful emotional forces that drove the iconic world traveler and chef. Bourdain, who rose to fame living his life on the edge and on his own terms, found his identity transformed when he became a dad. “Fatherhood has been an enormous relief, as I am now genetically, instinctually compelled to care more about someone other than myself,” Bourdain said.
For Father’s Day this year, we're showcasing five remarkable films about fatherhood, poignant stories about the comical, confusing, and ultimately heroic ways that men strive to live up to the images their kids have of them.
Let Him Go | The classic dad
In Let Him Go, filmmaker Thomas Bezucha crafts a classic neo-Western about what parents will do to protect their children. Having lost their only son to a freak accident, Margaret and George Blackledge (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) are not willing to lose any more of their family. So when they learn that the renegade clan that their daughter-in-law remarried into has whisked their only grandson to another state, the couple drives from Wyoming to the Dakotas, determined to rescue the boy . Against the heroic landscape of the American West, the characters follow an epic path that at times feels, as Bezucha notes, “like a Greek tragedy.” Adding to their larger-than-life fate is the fact that Lane and Costner were previously paired in the 2013 film Man of Steel as Martha and Jonathan Kent, the parents of Superman. In the end, Margaret and George will risk everything to fulfill their destiny as a mother and father. “It’s a revenge-and-rescue action film that’s honest about the stakes of heroism,” praises Variety. With Lane and Costner “united — in their mission, and in the sacrifice they’ll make for it.”
Beginners | The surprising dad
With Beginners, Mike Mills crafted a funny and touching elegy to his recently deceased father. When his father, Paul Mills, came out as gay at 75, Mike Mills discovered a new and fascinating side to the man he had known all his life, an identity that both surprised and moved him. “I couldn’t have made this film,” explains Mills, “if I didn’t feel like I was making it out of love...and real admiration for his coming out.” In the film, Hal's (Christopher Plummer) exuberant embrace of his new sexuality (and a younger boyfriend) inspires for his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), especially as Oliver navigates a new relationship with a French actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent). For Indiewire, “That unique aspect of Oliver’s family history establishes the movie’s central juxtaposition: A man searching for his purpose while his dying father finally realizes his own.”
The Place Beyond the Pines | The fate of dads
In 2007, when writer/director Derek Cianfrance's wife was pregnant with their second son, he wondered how a father could save his child from the mistakes he had made in his life. “All I could think of was that I didn’t want…this baby to be tarnished or tainted with any of my sins and all of a sudden the movie popped into my head,” Cianfrance remembers. The film, The Place Beyond the Pines, tracks two generations of fathers and sons in a small upstate New York town. When the lives of motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) and rookie police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) collide with each other, neither understands how their actions will forever alter the lives of their sons, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen). As USA Today points out, “The Place Beyond the Pines fuses an insightful study of masculinity, ambition and fatherhood with a stylishly made crime thriller, resulting in a fascinating look at the unexpected ripple effect one person can have on the lives of many.”
Half Brothers | The divided dad
At the heart of Luke Greenfield’s Half Brothers is the relationship between two siblings — Renato (Luis Gerardo Méndez) and Asher (Connor Del Rio) — and their father, Flavio (Juan Pablo Espinosa). Needing to find work in the US, Flavio leaves the young Renato behind in Mexico, unfortunately never to return. On his deathbed, Flavio promises to reveal to Renato the reason he never returned and why Renato has a half brother living in the United States. But to get to the answer, both sons must join forces and take a road trip together. Initially, producer and co-writer Eduardo Cisneros was interested in writing about his experience, having lived on both sides of the border. “I was looking at what was happening in my life, being an immigrant,” Cisneros remembers. But that idea morphed into a poignant comedy about dads and their sons. “I began to imagine a father trying to explain to his adult children all the things that he couldn’t fully explain when they were kids,” explains Cisneros.
A Serious Man | The beleaguered dad
Filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen return to their childhoods and father for their existential comedy A Serious Man. While not exactly based on their life stories, the film’s protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) bears more than a passing resemblance to the filmmaking brother’s own dad, a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota. As Gopnik, a physics professor, struggles to find stability as his personal and professional life begins to unravel, he seeks spiritual guidance on how to be a serious man in an absurd world. Unfortunately, as The Boston Globe jokes, “The Coens throw the book at a suburban dad” in the film. While no real dads were hurt in the filming of this comedy, the Coen brothers had lots of fun recalling their childhoods. “There's something strange, not in a bad way,” explains Ethan Coen, “about going back to where you grew up.”