Review: ‘Dads,’ starring Ron Howard, Will Smith, Conan O’Brien, Ken Jeong, Jimmy Fallon, Neil Patrick Harris and Jimmy Kimmel

June 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bryce Dallas Howard and her father Ron Howard in “Dads” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Dads” 

Directed by Bryce Dallas Howard

Culture Representation: The documentary “Dads” has a racially diverse group of people (white, black, Asian and Latino) representing the middle-class and wealthy and talking about fatherhood.

Culture Clash: Some of the fathers interviewed in the film talk about defying traditional masculine stereotypes, by being more involved in raising their children than previous generations of fathers were expected to be.

Culture Audience: “Dads” will appeal to anyone who likes nonfiction films about parenting issues, even though it shuts out any perspectives of fathers who are poor or have negative attitudes about being fathers.

Robert Selby (pictured at right) and his son RJ in “Dads” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The documentary “Dads” puts such an unrelenting positive and happy spin on fatherhood that it has a strange dichotomy of being a nonfiction film that isn’t entirely realistic. Bryce Dallas Howard (the eldest child of Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard) makes her feature-film directorial debut with “Dads,” which devotes considerable screen time to members of the Howard family talking about fatherhood. “Dads” is ultimately a very uplifting “feel good” movie, but it doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or reveal any new concepts of fatherhood.

There are no deadbeat dads or bitter fathers who’ve lost child custody in “Dads.” Instead, the documentary focuses only on fathers who love being dads and have good relationships with their children. There are several celebrities interviewed in the film (all of whom have a background in comedy), such as Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Neil Patrick Harris, Ron Howard, Ken Jeong, Jimmy Kimmel, Hasan Minhaj, Conan O’Brien, Patton Oswalt and Will Smith.

“Dads” has three kinds of footage: soundbites from the celebrities, with Bryce Dallas Howard as the interviewer (she sometimes appears on camera); clips of home movies (the clips from random, unidentified people give the documentary an “America’s Funniest Home Videos” look); and six in-depth profiles of seven middle-class fathers from different parts of the world.

Although the celebrities offer some amusing anecdotes, many of their stories seem rehearsed or their comments are made just to crack a joke. Smith, in particular, seems to have memorized way in advance what he was going to say in this documentary. With the exception of Ron Howard, the celebrities are not shown with their children in this documentary, which is why the celebrity segments in the film are pretty superficial. The best parts of the documentary are with the people who aren’t rich and famous, because that’s the footage that actually shows “regular” fathers (who don’t have nannies) taking care of the kids.

The seven non-famous fathers who are profiled in the movie are:

  • Glen Henry (in San Diego), an African American who became a “daddy vlogger” to document his experiences as a stay-at-home dad.
  • Reed Howard (in Westchester, New York), who is Bryce Dallas Howard’s youngest sibling and was a first-time expectant father at the time the documentary was filmed.
  • Robert Selby (in Triangle, Virginia), an African American whose son survived a life-or-death medical crisis.
  • Thiago Queiroz (in Rio de Janeiro), a Brazilian who started a podcast and blog about fatherhood and who advocates for longer time for paternity leaves.
  • Shuichi Sakuma (in Tokyo), who is a Japanese homemaker.
  • Rob Scheer and Reece Scheer (in Darnestown, Maryland), a white gay couple who adopted four African American kids.

Glen Henry used to work as a sales clerk at men’s clothing store, but he was so unhappy in his job that his wife Yvette suggested that he quit his job and become a stay-at-home father. (At the time “Dads” was filmed, the Henrys had two sons and a daughter.) Glen Henry, who has a blog called Beleaf in Fatherhood, began making videos documenting his fatherhood experiences.

Glen admits that he thought at first that it would be easy to take care of the kids by himself, but he found out that he was very wrong about that. “I felt like an imposter,” he says of his early years as a homemaker. Even though his wife Yvette says she wasn’t thrilled about Glen putting their family’s life on display for everyone to see on the Internet, she says it’s worth it because Glen is a much happier person as a stay-at-home dad.

Echoing what many of the fathers say in the documentary, Glen Henry comments: “The role of father has shifted in a major way. We went from providing, being there for holidays and disciplining to being all the way involved—and you kind of look like a dork if you’re not.”

He continues, “I feel like being a father made me the man that I am. My children taught me to be authentic and honest with myself. Fatherhood has given me a whole new identity.”

Reed Howard, who was expecting his first child with his wife when this documentary was being filmed, talks about the home videos that his father Ron filmed of all of his children being born. (Clips of some of those videos are included in the documentary.) Reeds says half-jokingly that since all of Ron’s kids were forced to watch the videos, it was “traumatic” to see part of his mother’s body that he never wanted to see.

Ron Howard’s father Rance (who died in 2017) is also interviewed in “Dads.” Rance says that when Ron was a co-star on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Rance suggested to Andy Griffith to not have Ron’s character Opie written as a brat. Griffith took the advice, and the father-son relationship on the show was modeled after the relationship that Rance had with Ron in real life. (Rance Howard and Ron Howard are the only grandfathers interviewed in the movie, by the way.)

Most of the dads interviewed in the documentary get emotional and teary-eyed at some point in the film. Ron Howard’s crying moment comes when he says that his greatest fear as a father was that he wouldn’t be as good as his father was to him. Reed (who is Ron’s only son) expresses the same fear about not being able to live up to the great experiences that he had with Ron as his father.

Selby has perhaps the most compelling story, since his son RJ was born with a congenital heart defect. Selby describes years of stressful hospital visits and medical treatments in order to help RJ live as healthy of a life as possible. This dedicated dad had to make many sacrifices, such as taking unpaid time off from work and forgo paying some bills in order to pay for RJ’s medical expenses. “There was no doubt in mind: I would forever be his protector,” Selby says of his outlook on being RJ’s father.

Selby is also the only father interviewed in the film who isn’t financially privileged, since he says that he often didn’t have a car during his son’s ongoing medical crisis. And when he did have a car, it was repossessed  multiple times because he couldn’t make the payments. He ended up working a night shift because it was the only way he could have a job (he doesn’t mention what he does for a living) while also going to school and taking care of RJ during the day.

Chantay Williams (who is RJ’s mother) and Selby were never married and didn’t have a serious relationship when she got pregnant with RJ. Selby breaks down and cries when he remembers that when he found out about the pregnancy, he didn’t want Williams to have the child and he didn’t talk to her for two months. But he changed his mind, asked for her forgiveness, and is now a very involved father.

However, Selby says that he still feels shame over his initial reaction to the pregnancy, and he comments that he’ll probably spend the rest of his life trying to make up for that mistake. Williams says in the documentary that Selby is proof that someone can change, and that he’s truly a devoted father and that his devotion isn’t just a show for the documentary cameras.

Quieroz (a married father of two sons and a daughter) knows what it’s like to not have a father raise him, since his dad wasn’t in his life for most of his childhood. He says that it’s one of the reasons why he vowed to always be there for his kids. Quieroz’s day job is as a mechanical engineer, but he also started a fatherhood podcast with two other Brazilian fathers, and he has a fatherhood blog. It’s through the blog that Quieroz’s estranged father got in touch with him. The outcome of that contact is revealed in the documentary.

Sakuma talks about how, in Japanese culture, men who don’t work outside the home are considered “society dropouts.” When he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder 20 years ago, Sakuma could no longer work outside the home. He became so depressed that he contemplated divorce and suicide, until his wife begged him: “Please continue living for me.”

After Sakuma regained his health, one of the first things he wanted to do was become a parent, but his wife didn’t want to have kids. He says in the documentary that he began a personal campaign that lasted two years to get his wife to change her mind. She changed her mind when he told her that men can do anything when it comes to raising a child, except for pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. He convinced her that he would make a great stay-at-home dad, which he is to their son.

Rob and Reece Scheer didn’t expect to become parents to four kids in a short period of time (less than a year), but that’s what happened when they fostered four children, whom they eventually ended up adopting. Rob and Reece have three sons and one daughter; two of the sons are biological brothers. Rob (the older husband) says he knew that he wanted to be a father since he was 6 years old. Rob describes how he grew up with an abusive father, but that traumatic experience helped him know that he wanted to be the opposite of abusive when he became a dad.

The four kids adopted by Reece and Rob also come from troubled backgrounds, so Rob believes surviving his own abusive childhood helps him relate to his kids in that way. As for Reece, he was working two jobs when he decided quit those jobs to be the couple’s stay-at-home partner. They had to make the sacrifice of having a lower household income, but now the family lives happily on a farm, which the dads say has been beneficial for the emotional well-being of their kids.

Rob Scheer says that sometimes people say unintentionally ignorant things  about gay couples who are parents. “People ask, ‘Who’s the mom and who’s the dad?’ We’re both dads, but the one thing that we do is that we both partner. That’s what parents should be doing.”

One of the questions that Bryce Dallas Howard asks the celebrities is to define what a father is in one word. Fallon says “hero,” while Minhaj says “compass.” Many of the celebrity fathers in the documentary make obvious comments that are similar to each other, such as: “There’s no instruction manual/rulebook to being a father.”

And although Kimmel and Jeong briefly mention the medical scares they went through with their children (a heart defect for one of Kimmel’s sons, a premature birth for one of Jeong’s children), the documentary doesn’t show them opening up about these issues in a meaningful way. Instead, most of the celebrity soundbites are meant to elicit laughs. Several of the celebrities make references to their busy careers when they talk about how their work keeps them from spending more time with their kids, but they know that they’re working hard to provide very well for their children.

Although the non-famous fathers who are profiled  in “Dads” seem to be a diverse group because they’re from different countries and racial groups, they actually have more in common with each other than not, because they’re all middle-class fathers with children who were under the age of 13 at the time this documentary was filmed. It seems like these fathers were selected because they have young children who are in the “cute” stages of life—no kids who are teenagers or adults—thereby creating more documentary footage that was likely to be “adorable.”

Apatow and Smith are the only fathers who talk about how fatherhood became less fun for them when their children became teenagers. They mention that they had to learn to give their teenage kids space, adjust to their kids’ growing independence, and allow them to make their own decisions on issues, even if those decisions turned out to be mistakes. But since the documentary doesn’t do any up-close profiles of non-famous fathers who have teenagers, the only commentaries about raising teenagers come from rich and famous guys, and it’s questionable how relatable these celebrity dads are to the rest of the public.

For example, Smith has said in other interviews (not in this documentary) that he and his wife Jada don’t believe that their kids should be punished in their household when they do something wrong, their kids never had to do household chores, and he and Jada allowed their kids to drop out of school when the kids didn’t feel like going anymore. Apatow admits in the documentary that he’s also a permissive dad who never really punished his kids if they did something wrong. Is it any wonder that many celebrities are perceived as raising spoiled kids who are out of touch with the real world?

One of the other shortcomings of “Dads” is that, except for Selby, the documentary completely ignores major financial strains that parenthood can cause. It’s as if the documentary wants to forget that financially poor fathers exist in this world too. And even though Minhaj is the only one in “Dads” to mention the immigrant experience, “Dads” could have used more fatherhood stories from an immigrant perspective.

However, if you want a heartwarming look at famous and non-famous dads who say that parenthood is the best thing that ever happened to them, “Dads” fulfills all those expectations. This documentary is more like a series of love letters instead of a thorough and inclusive investigation.

Apple TV+ premiered “Dads” on June 19, 2020.

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