Streaming: the best single dads on screen

·5 min read

It’s Father’s Day, and if you’re looking for a suitable new film to mark the occasion, Netflix has cannily released Paul Weitz’s Fatherhood just in time – ending a long period of pandemic limbo for a film that was supposed to be out in April 2020. One way or another, it has found its moment: sweetly agreeable if no classic, you’d never guess it wasn’t entirely custom-made for this one day of the year.

It’s a showcase for the softer side of Kevin Hart, the brash, unfiltered comedian who got into hot water some years ago over homophobic tweets and comedy routines detailing his fear of his son growing up to be gay. Perhaps Fatherhood is to some extent an image reform exercise. He’s certainly quite disarming in it, as an overwhelmed widower left holding his infant daughter without a clue about how to raise her. As you can probably predict, what ensues is a dual coming-of-age story, as the manchild matures in tandem with his kid. Weitz, who has experience in crude comedy (American Pie) and mellower male crisis (About a Boy), unsurprisingly pitches Fatherhood halfway between those two modes, allowing some room for Hart’s trademark shtick between sentimental life lessons.

The figure of the burdened, honourable single father has a long history in the movies, combining as he does mainstream cinema’s preferences for solo heroes, family values and patriarchal dominance. (The single mother, unsurprisingly, gets shorter shrift.) A lone man and a child has been a shortcut to audience sympathies ever since Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp adopted an abandoned newborn in The Kid (Amazon), one of his warmest and most sugar-crusted comedies, exactly 100 years ago.

A few decades later, in Elia Kazan’s robust film of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1955; YouTube), the single father was a less cuddly presence. Flawed, hyper-religious patriarch Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) risks pushing his wayward son Cal (James Dean) away with his stern principles, though his affection remains the most prized reward of this Cain and Abel narrative. (The lad’s absent mother is a brothel madam; Steinbeck’s tale was always more stirring than subtle.)

Mary Badham as Scout and Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Mary Badham as Scout and Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Less compromised single-dad virtue came to the fore a few years later courtesy of Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning, stout-hearted Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The plain, unpious decency of his performance is one reason this 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel has aged so gracefully. The same year, over in Japan, Yasujirō Ozu presented his own elegant vision of reserved fatherly duty: in An Autumn Afternoon, an elderly widower (the wonderful Chishū Ryū) faces a bittersweet choice between his unmarried adult daughter’s happiness and his own future wellbeing.

Selflessness prevails, but cad dads are more fun. Perhaps my favourite single-father story is one where even the matter of paternity is in doubt: Ryan O’Neal’s crooked bible salesman may or may not be the father of the equally devious nine-year-old tyke (Tatum O’Neal) he falls in with in Peter Bogdanovich’s irresistible jaunt Paper Moon (1973; Google Play), but they’re clearly peas in a pod. Never have real-life kin been so ideally cast.

If single fathers on screen had until this point largely been victims of tragic death and circumstances, it took Dustin Hoffman’s scrambling, left-in-the-lurch dad in perennial tearjerker Kramer vs Kramer (1979; Amazon) to bring the role into the age of divorce and modern families.

More recently, Mike Mills’s lovely, autobiographical Beginners (2010; iTunes) further updated the archetype: as played by Christopher Plummer to wry, bright-eyed effect, a gay man could also be a model of paternal care and kindness. Mills’s film glows with gentle empathy; it’s a far cry from the very tough love espoused in John Singleton’s indelible Boyz N the Hood (1991; Google Play), in which Laurence Fishburne’s brooding, fiercely upstanding Furious Styles, with his hard worldview and politically alert pep talks, endures as a bastion of black masculinity on film. “Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children,” he famously says. It’s a conclusion that Fatherhood reaches in a sunnier way.

Also new on streaming and DVD

London Indian film festival
The UK’s biggest Indian film festival – which, despite the name, is running in Birmingham and Manchester too – is also offering a digital programme for at-home audiences this year, with 16 selections available to stream for 24 hours after their premiere. Highlights include the Bangladeshi documentary Baganiya, a perceptive study of tea-field labourers, and the absorbing Muslim-American family saga I’ll Meet You There.

Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Judas and the Black Messiah
(Warner Bros)
Out Mondayon DVD and non-premium VOD, Shaka King’s film about real-life FBI informant William O’Neal’s infiltration of the Black Panther party isn’t as formally radical as it is politically impassioned, but it’s riveting just the same, getting additional voltage every time Daniel Kaluuya – fully earning his Oscar as Panther revolutionary Fred Hampton – fills the screen.

If the delightful, Oscar-winning Minari was your introduction to the work of director Lee Isaac Chung, you’ll be glad to see that Mubi is currently streaming his equally worthwhile but relatively little-seen 2007 debut. Shot entirely in Rwanda – it was the first film ever made in the Kinyarwanda language – its tale of two boys returning home in the wake of the Rwandan genocide is thoughtful and closely observed, avoiding any sense of cultural tourism.

But I’m a Cheerleader
Given little attention on its release, Jamie Babbit’s cheerfully chaotic 1999 comedy about a teenage lesbian cheerleader shunted off to a gay conversion camp has amassed a genuine queer cult over time – now validated with a shiny 4K restoration and Blu-ray release. Young RuPaul converts, meanwhile, will want to see his winking against-type turn as a “reformed” counsellor.

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