Happy Father’s Day! This holiday is special to madeleinelovesmovies because, as you may have figured out, this is actually a joint venture between a daughter and father! My dad shared his love of movies with me and taught me how to watch them discerningly, and now we continue to share this love through seeing films, debating them, and writing and editing these reviews. To celebrate, here is a spotlight on four small, under-the-radar movies I haven’t reviewed before about complex fathers.
Infinitely Polar Bear
Infinitely Polar Bear stars Mark Ruffalo as Cam, a father with bipolar disorder taking care of his two daughters when his wife (Zoe Saldana) goes away to attend graduate school. The film is semi-autobiographical for director Maya Forbes (The Polka King), based on her father and her experiences growing up.
This is a tough film to watch at times. There is a lot of second-hand embarrassment that comes from Cam’s manic episodes that play out in public and humiliate his daughters. There are emotionally wrought moments, and if you have a parent that struggles with a mental illness, the film will especially hit home. Sometimes it feels a little simplistic, like Forbes is too close to the material to push against Cam’s more irresponsible moments that nearly endanger his children. I imagine the reality was a lot more difficult than Infinitely Polar Bear admits. But this isn’t enough to deter what is overall a wonderfully acted and compelling film that ultimately argues, convincingly, that being present is more important than being perfect, and that there is a lot of grace for parents who try.
Captain Fantastic tells the story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a father of six who has been raising his children in the wilderness as a form of extreme-homeschooling. When his wife dies, Ben is forced to take his family out of isolation and emerge into a society that they might not be ready for.
Captain Fantastic is quirky, but despite the occasional weak point in the script, mostly steers clear of indie cliches. Mortensen holds the film together through his performance as Ben, a fiercely dedicated father but an arrogant, prideful, and boastful man who has to be brought down from his pedestal by his children. He wrestles with making difficult choices for his family, and when to compromise his values for his kids. While the film isn’t traditionally “faith-based” or Christian (the main characters actually make fun of Christians a few times), the questions wrestled with here are those of what many Christians who strive to “be in the world but not of it” face. It will certainly ring true for all parents who must navigate a rapidly changing culture they don’t always understand, in what feels like an increasingly hostile world for their children. But Captain Fantastic assures you that, no matter what, a parent’s love will help the kids be alright.
The Parts You Lose
The Parts You Lose is a cautionary tale about what will happen if a child doesn’t have a good father. In this case, the lack of love between him and his father is what drives young Wesley (newcomer Danny Murphy) to bond with the fugitive criminal (a particularly grizzly Aaron Paul) he’s hiding in his shed.
Wesley is deaf, something his father Ronnie (Scoot McNairy) refuses to acknowledge. While it’s clear Wesley responds better to sign language, Roonie insists on Wesley reading his lips. Ronnie is a rough man; bitter and often absent from his family. It’s basically an act of rebellion against his father’s inattention that Wesley rescues the injured criminal and nurses him back to health.
Paul’s unnamed criminal is not a good man, but his meager offering of attention and semi-paternal affirmation is enough for Wesley, who quickly becomes attached to him despite the unavoidable. As Wesley struggles between these two fathers, it becomes clear that no matter which influence prevails, Wesley will never fail to be disappointed.
The Parts You Lose is a bleak, moody, slow burn, but never unengaging. The movie puts Paul’s natural chemistry with kids to good use and he and Murphy’s scenes are a delight. Most impressively, the movie sticks the landing, which is always difficult for any film, but especially for small character dramas. A good ending is surprising, yet inevitable, and I felt like this movie nailed that. It’s sad as hell, but properly haunting.
Adopt A Highway
For our last pick, and the second film in the subgenre “convicts with parental instincts,” we have the lovely Adopt a Highway. Here at madeleinelovesmovies, we are big fans of all of these leading men, but Ethan Hawke has a special place in our hearts (watch First Reformed!!!) and Adopt A Highway simply reassures us of that fact. Hawke gives a soulful portrait of Russell, a man who spent 21 years in prison for possession of marijuana and emerges back into the world as a thoroughly institutionalized man. He struggles to reintegrate into society, assert his own identity, and make connections- that is, until he finds a baby named Ella in a dumpster outside of his work.
Adopt A Highway is not Raising Arizona, in tone or plot. Instead, it follows Russell’s road to restoration as he makes his way through his new world. His time with Ella is sweet but- spoiler alert- is not the main focus of the film. Rather, what he learns from his time taking care of Ella sticks with him as he journeys to resolve his own father’s death. Baby Ella shocks Russell into action, making him aware of his own self-worth and potential to care for others. It’s a tender journey that shows what fatherhood- in its many forms- can positively awaken within a man.