Dads | Docs/ology

Dads

Director: Bryce Dallas Howard

Runtime: 87 min

In the opening moments of Bryce Dallas Howard’s documentary Dads (airing on Apple TV+ beginning June 19), several celebrity fathers are asked to complete one deceptively simple sentence: A father is …

“A hero,” Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon tells us. “If I do it right, I should be a hero to them.”

No pressure.

Spider-Man reminds us that with great power comes great responsibility. It could easily be the motto of fatherhood, too. We help bring life into the world. If we accept our roles (and sadly, some men don’t), we nurture and provide for and protect that life to the best of our ability. We teach them what we can, give them the support we think they need and, eventually, send our children off into the world—hoping we’ve prepared them for the challenges to come.

Those basic responsibilities don’t change. And yet, as Howard’s documentary illustrates, the job of fatherhood has changed—and continues to change—rapidly. Dads are getting more involved in the day-to-day, often hour-to-hour responsibilities of child-rearing. It’s not enough to just bring home a paycheck and dish out dollops of wisdom while reading the evening paper, Leave It to Beaver style: Fathers are volunteering at daycares, cooking dinners and sometimes serving as their children’s primary caregivers. As Howard’s own father, director Ron Howard, says in the doc, “Today more than ever, [fatherhood is] a very fluid thing.”

To illustrate that fluidity, Bryce Dallas Howard takes us around the globe to examine just what it means to be a dad today. In Rio de Janeiro we meet Thiago Queiroz, who was raised without a father and had to learn how to be a dad from scratch. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. Now he hosts a podcast on fatherhood. In Tokyo we’re introduced to Shuichi Sakuma, who swims against Japan’s work-centric cultural stream and stays home with his son. “When I first decided to become a stay-at-home husband, I felt like a failure,” he admits. But then he adds, “I never used to smile this much. I was a different man.” Fathers Rob and Reece Scheer raise a bevy of adopted children on their Maryland farm, including one who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. When they’re asked who fills the role of “dad” in the family, one explains they don’t look at it that way. “We both partner. That’s what parents should be doing.”

But for me, the most poignant dad we meet is one of the first we’re introduced to: Robert Selby of Virginia. Out of wedlock, he fathered a child with a congenital heart defect and, originally, he had no interest in helping raise the boy. But his conscience wouldn’t allow him to just walk away. In spite of huge financial difficulties and lack of reliable transportation, Robert jumped back into the lives of his little boy and his mom. And in one of the doc’s most moving moments, his son tells him just how much he appreciates it.

“I love you with all of my fixed heart,” the boy says.

These stories are interspersed with observations from A-list celebrity fathers, from Will Smith to Judd Apatow to Neil Patrick Harris. We hear how seriously they take their roles as dads—and how they, like fathers everywhere, struggle with insecurities and fear and the nagging sense that, sometimes, they’re not quite up to the job.

It all serves as a welcome, and inspiring, dose of reality for dads who might be watching. Bryce Dallas Howard reminds us how hard fatherhood can be … but how wonderful and critical it is, too. Dads can be heroes, like Jimmy Fallon says. But heroes come in lots of different forms. And often, the most heroic thing we can do is just be there.

Written by Paul Asay