Daddy Dearest

‘The Way, Way Back’, Ryan Gosling’s ‘Pines’ & More Daddy Issues in Film

Why this year’s biggest movie trend is dysfunctional father-son relationships.

Hooman Bahrani/Sony

Amid this year’s predictable film slate of 3-D blockbusters, superhero flicks, prequels, sequels, and fairy tales reinvented, there is a group of films that explore another familiar theme: father-son relationships.

There are missing fathers and terrible father-figures (The Way, Way Back), fathers with their own daddy issues (At Any Price), sons who inherit their father’s demons (The Place Beyond the Pines), fathers trying to cope with loss (The Kings of Summer), and fathers who are simply drunken assholes (The Spectacular Now). These films, along with half a dozen others, have created a release schedule that is saturated with movies that attempt to address paternal problems.

According to The Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, there are a limited amount of theses in cinema, so it’s not surprising that father-son turmoil is having a moment on the big screen. “It’s a universal struggle: everyone grows up; everyone has issues with their parents,” says Vogt-Roberts. “At the end of the day, everyone knew some kid whose parents were out of their minds.”

The trend is perhaps most plainly embodied in Derek Cianfrance’s epic The Place Beyond the Pines. The film follows three generations of men—fathers, grandfathers, and sons—as their lives and actions intertwine. Ryan Gosling, in his second-to-last film before his self-imposed hiatus, plays a daredevil motorcyclist who takes to robbing banks to support his son and baby mama. But when one heist goes terribly wrong, his 1-year-old son is forced to grow up without a biological father and face the demons his deceased daddy left for him.

It’s “about this transcendent power of becoming a father and the responsibility that it carries, and about how one choice that you make can echo and reverberate throughout generations. I wanted to make a film about legacy,” Cianfrance said.

Cianfrance’s own experience as a father was an inspiration. Fatherhood triggered a sort of “fire” inside of him that was the perfect fuel for his film. “I thought about how my father had this same kind of fire and how it had helped me out in my own life, but it also could be a really destructive force at some points. I thought about how my grandfather had that. I’m sure my great-great grandfathers had that. It just went back generations and generations, and I started thinking about this baby, my newborn son, and how I hoped that he wouldn’t have that same fire, too.”

The Kings of Summer director also found a muse in his own relationship—or lack thereof—with his father (who has yet to see the film, which opened in limited release May 31). In The Kings of Summer, a coming-of-age dramedy about a teenage boy, Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) runs away from home with two friends because he can’t stand his controlling and condescending father, Frank (Nick Offerman). While much of the conflict between the father and son characters in The Kings of Summer was branded into the script before he got his hands on it, Vogt-Roberts says his familial influence is undeniable: “There are a lot of similarities between this relationship and mine with my father,” he began. “In the same way Joe and Frank mirror each other and have this realization in which they are becoming each other, I very frequently have that with my dad.”

The Way, Way Back (which opened last week), The Spectacular Now (in theaters August 2), and even Jeff Nichols’s Mud all are films that deal with the issues surrounding a lack of paternal influence, specifically a loss of father figure for a son.

In The Way Way Back, a socially awkward preteen (Liam James) is sent to vacation with his mother and her douche bag of a boyfriend (played surprisingly well by Steve Carell) in a trip that is less about family bonding and more “spring break for adults.” He finds a male mentor in a quirky water-park employee and subsequently finds the strength to stand up to his mom’s boyfriend, the ability to hit on girls, his own voice, and the humor life can bring.

In The Spectacular Now, the film’s protagonist (Miles Teller) is a budding alcoholic who can attribute his erratic behavior to his dad (Kyle Chandler), a man he hasn’t seen in years, but soon finds out is a drunken and forgetful father.

Perhaps the reason why the 2013 movie season is riddled with the tumult of fathers and sons is not because it is particularly relevant today, but because it always has been. The relationships between parents and their children, fathers and sons, have dominated storytelling in one form or another forever. “I bet if you went back over the last 10 years, you’d see that there’s probably a shitload of father-son stories,” says Vogt-Roberts.

But while father and son films are having their first—or second or third—moment in the sun, is there enough room in the cinematic spectrum for daughters?

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Among the dozen or so films that dissect the turbulence of boys and the men who made them, a single film attempts to address the equally complicated bond between daughters and their dads. In a World..., starring Lake Bell, who also wrote and directed the film, centers on a vocal coach (Bell) who is motivated to change the voice of voice-over acting in the male-driven industry. But her biggest problem isn’t the sexism of the business, it’s that her father, the king of movie-trailer voice-overs, is her biggest competition. He even tells her, flat out, that she’s doomed to fail:

“Let’s face it, the industry does not crave a female sound.”“Yeah, dad, you made me painfully aware of that my whole life.”“I’m not being sexist. That’s just the truth.”

In a World... proves that the issues surrounding fathers and sons in movies this year are not limited to the male gender. “There is a general thirst,” says Vogt-Roberts. And for 2013 filmmakers and their audiences, the thirst for stories that embody difficult family dynamics has yet to be quenched.