Movie review: The documentary ‘Dads’ gives us fathers’-eye views of bringing up kids
It’s always a challenge to figure out how to begin a movie, to choose what the very first shot should be. That task is handily and appropriately and endearingly accomplished in this documentary about fathers. It opens with 39-year-old video footage of its director - Bryce Dallas Howard - being born, and her dad - Ron Howard - right there in the delivery room, getting it on tape.
For her first time as a feature director - she’s previously done shorts and episodic TV - Howard maintains a refreshing approach to her subject, while at the same time playing it relatively safe. The idea was to interview a bunch of dads, in separate sessions, all being asked the same or at least similar questions. For instance, “In simplest terms, what is a father?” Or, “Do you remember the first time you held your baby?” That’s the playing it safe part. Even though there’s a variety of answers, it’s the repetition of those sorts of questions that keeps the film running smoothly on-track.
The refreshing approach is that Howard who, by being in show business, knows a lot of people in show business, fills the film’s roster with celebrity dads, among them Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Will Smith, and her own dad. They each stand in a large empty space, in front of a colorful blank wall, answering the questions being asked by her, off-camera.
She ups the ante and makes the film more accessible by slyly turning those instantly recognizable, familiar men into something like background characters. She keeps cutting back to them as they answer questions, make comments, smile, and laugh and, in a couple of cases, shed a few tears. But she keeps the main focus on a gaggle of everyday, non-celebrity dads from around the world. They also answer questions and make comments. But they’re not on a soundstage; they’re at home, interacting with their kids, both as they’re being interviewed and in a plentiful supply of their own home movies.
There’s Glen Henry, who explains how much fun it is as well as how difficult it is to be the father of three kids. There’s Robert Selby, a single dad whose son has had major health problems since birth, talking about and showing us how close they are. The same-sex couple of Rob and Reece Scheer discuss the wild ride it’s been since they adopted four kids in six months. The most compelling segment, in Tokyo, features Shuichi Sakuma, who became a late-in-life father only after overcoming his own health issues.
These unknown guys are the meat and potatoes of the film, and they provide the most insight to the subject. But Howard’s structure has things regularly jump back to the well-known folks for some candid frosting on the cake: Judd Apatow admits that upon finding out his wife was pregnant, he wasn’t the least bit prepared for what was to come. Conan O’Brien adds, “We’re all making this up as we go. There’s no school for this.” Neil Patrick Harris brings up that fatherhood has increased his sleep deprivation. Ron Howard, comically and unexpectedly letting a couple of curse words slip out, talks about how wonderful the early years are, “up till about 12.” Will Smith is excitable and hilarious. Howard’s younger brother Reed, whose wife’s due date is a month away, is seen grappling with the installation of a car seat.
These are all deeply caring people. Some of them wonder and worry if they’re around their kids enough and even if they’re around them too much. Some of the answers are very sweet, but are matched up with an awareness of responsibility. To her credit, Howard has balanced everything to make the film both funny and profound.
“Dads” is available on Apple TV+ starting June 19.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.
Directed by Bryce Dallas Howard
With Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Ron Howard, Will Smith