Bryce Dallas Howard’s directorial debut is a fluffy, familial piece that works best when it’s at its most grounded.
After seven months, Apple TV+ has developed a brand for the kind of films and television they deliver: easygoing inspirational fare. Like a sugary-sweet commercial for MasterCard or Subway, they’re here to bring you something cozy. Something that plucks the heartstrings. Something that isn’t all that heavy to watch. This aesthetic even applies to projects they acquire at film festivals like Bryce Dallas Howard’s documentary, Dads.
In it, Howard examines what it means to be a dad in the 21st century. To do this, much of it is divided into five segments. Each section examines a father from a differing country, socioeconomic background, or sexuality. These include Glenn Henry, a stay-at-home dad vlogger; Shuichi Sakuma, a Japanese father who discovered his gift for domestic work while being stuck at home sick; and Rob & Reece Scheer, a couple that has taken in four foster children.
Howard trusts a restrained approach in telling these five stories, and Dads eschews ham-fisted music cues or over-the-top camerawork to move audiences. Instead, Howard relies on interviews with the various parents with accompanying home video footage. It’s a stripped-down approach that fits these stories. The ballad of Rob & Reece Sheer is engaging enough on its own, for example, and Dads doesn’t need to work overtime to get viewers invested in their struggles.
These five segments contain a quiet level of diversity that subtly reinforces the documentary’s basic thesis: modern fathers come in all shapes and sizes. The old rigid father stereotypes have been toppled. In their place is enough room for more idiosyncratic approaches to fatherhood. This is the new norm, and Dads depicts that status quo in a casual manner. The different fathers aren’t defined as anachronistic, nor does the film milk their difficulties for shock value. The new norm of fatherhood is presented as just that—normal—and by filtering these five fathers through Howard’s unobtrusive filmmaking, Dads recognizes the flexibility of fatherhood.
This quintuple of parents isn’t the only focus of this documentary, though. Dads also dedicates a significant chuck of its runtime to an assortment of interviews. One might expect such interviews to concern child psychologists or other experts on parent/child relationships, but instead, Dads turns itself over to… noted parenting expert Jimmy Fallon.
Yes, interview segments in Dads solely concern actors and comedians in order to frame fatherhood in an emotional rather than cerebral context. The likes of Judd Apatow, Conan O’Brien, and Kenan Thompson are a few famous faces that share their experiences of parenthood. Alas, these prove to be a more disposable part of the production. The charisma of, say, Will Smith makes some of the interviews pleasant, but few of the subjects bring anything insightful to the table. The one exception is a closing existential question from Hasan Minhaj, marking the rare instance where the interviews strive for something deeper.
The new norm of fatherhood is presented as just that—normal—and by filtering these five fathers through Howard’s unobtrusive filmmaking, Dads recognizes the flexibility of fatherhood.
The final 15 minutes of brings things to a personal level for its director. The focus zeroes in on Ron Howard and Rance Howard, father and grandfather of Bryce Dallas Howard, respectively. These scenes have their touching moments, like Rance Howard’s Andy Griffith Show anecdote. But too many of these scenes feel to clean, a bit too polished. The two seem to have a traditional father/son rapport given how the movie presents them, and that just isn’t as interesting as the preceding, more complex dynamics.
Too much of Dads ends up being this kind of celebrity fluff, which is why it never coalesces into a particularly insightful take on fatherhood. However, the anecdotes from the non-celebrity dads are a much better manifestation of the intended message and poignant tone. True, it’s all cut from the same treacly cloth as the majority of Apple TV+’s programming, but at least Dads is a more agreeable version of it.
Dads hits Apple TV+ this Friday, June 19.