Fathers on Film

Travelling to Malaysia and back requires 2×6 + 2×7 hours of plane journeys. That’s a lot of reading, thinking or film watching. On the final leg I’d already merrily enjoyed the very British The Lady in the Van, fell in love with relationships in all their ugly glory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (cue Clementine ringing in my head for the entire holiday), decided I was going to live anywhere in Europe but the UK after watching Where to Invade Next and gotten through an hour of Our Kind of Traitor before giving up and being instead captivated by Rooney and Blanchet in Carol.

And so in all my wisdom, I decided to pass the final flight time by setting up a Fathers and Daughters v Mothers and Daughters super-challenge. It was either that or re-watch Mothers’ Day, which I saw at least four other people doing. I’d never heard of either film and the titles alone were begging for rejection, but I hadn’t slept for around 23 hours by that point and I can’t be held accountable for my actions. Top marks to the screenwriters who realised they could appeal to 100% of the population by naming their films in the most generic way possible whilst also setting themselves up to fail on delivery: because no 2-hour art-form is in anyway capable of capturing the mine field that is the relationships between parents and their children.

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First up was Fathers and Daughters, which I was convinced I was going to hate, not least because of the name, but also because I’m not a Crowe fan (sound reason) and the opening involved the mother, who I think was Rosamund Pike, this time being killed by her husband for real in a predictable car crash as they argue about him flirting. Tragic. I did have some semblance of hope given the film’s promise to explore how a girl’s relationship with her father affected her future relationships with men. Perhaps the screenwriters aimed to bring to life Cooper’s ideas that we glue ourselves to our family so we can’t be whole?

Five minutes in and it’s looking morbid, rightly so, but I’m on an aeroplane and the food is morbid enough. There’s some creative juxtaposition of life before and after mother: no laughter, no movement. Russell can’t write and that’s his career! They have a massive NY apartment: because no doubt this reflects most Fathers and Daughters’ lives. Now it feels empty. Russell goes to see a doctor and there are too many mental health issues listed for me to even catch one of them. But it’s okay: all we need to know is the phrase ‘psychotic breaks’ and understand that he needs to go away for a while to sort himself out. It’s really deep.

So he sits down his daughter and it’s a heart-warming scene. He calls her ‘babe’ and ‘sweetheart’ and it feels weird to me. I think about this while someone translates the pilot’s welcome-to-my-plane speech. Is it that I usually hear men use the phrases on women? I reason that I hear my friend call her son ‘handsome’ all the time. Or is it that I just can’t remember the last time I saw a father comfort and talk to his daughter on screen? It’s 10 minutes in and I am starting to thaw because it’s hard to resent anything outside the mainstream. There’s the heartbreaking goodbye scene as Russell has to leave his little Katie with her evil aunt and uncle in their mansion. Kylie Rogers’ longing for her father to stay is actually really palpable: that little girl is putting the rest of her wooden ‘star-cast’ colleagues to shame. It turns out it’s just as sad when a daddy leaves as when a mummy leaves. Imagine!

Seven months’ later (five years in aeroplane time), Russell is released by a traditional frumpy-looking nurse (the only non-stick-object in the film) and the film comes alive again with little Katie’s reunion – apparently you need a child to make a scene successful in this film. It’s actually quite sweet to share her excitement. Daddy! Angry, thin aunt Elizabeth is very upset in her mansion and has decided she has the right to adopt little Katie as she swigs back her midday potions. Her dad killed her sister after all. He was driving. Who cares that he hasn’t even been given a chance to prove he’s a bad dad who can’t cope without a mother yet?!

But we have to wait for all that: fast-forward 25 years and Katie is now Seyfried playing a younger version of Samantha from SATC. She’s having sex in toilets because she ‘didn’t have time to work out today’. How quaint. But it’s not all ‘bad’: she likes caring for people. She’s training to be a psychologist and her troubled child who’s just lost her mum is black. She’s in therapy herself of course and she can’t love. She’s never loved. Pause at 23 minutes for product placement commercial break: Candy Crush. Now she’s lying in bed staring at a book against a back-drop of rain, with the same name as this film (wow!) and it’s written by her father. This explains, at least, the terrible title.

31 minutes in and Russell is doing everything to keep his daughter in private school. The problem is that the evil aunt took her from that school and put her in one of her choosing during the seven months she owned her. There’s no room to get her back in. He’ll sacrifice his career and time: he’ll teach creative writing to 12th graders. He won’t take no for an answer but he’s polite. He softly negotiates. He plays the dead mum card politely. Turns out dads can also sacrifice and fight for their children. Excellent. If a mother had been written into that scene, Hollywood would have made her cry and beg. I imagine something like the mum in Home Alone: I’m begging you from a mother to a mother please!

Once again we are reminded that Adult Katie is excellent at her job. But is this because of her dad, or despite him? There’s momentum as her difficult case slowly crawls her fingers across to put them on top of Katie’s. Why are the only strong emotions in this film being emitted via children? This is quickly followed up when her mute child finally speaks: I want to stay with you. Awesome career moment for Katie, despite the fact that I’m not sure psychologists are supposed to encourage such attachment from a child already suffering from a lost parent and in foster care.

There’s a time-out montage now as we get to see all the ways Russell was an excellent father. Rather than challenging our ideas of what a father can get involved in, there he is, teaching his daughter to ride a bike. If only he’d then taught her to swim and build things the stereotype would have been complete. It’s quite symbolic of parenthood I think when she keeps riding away from him: raise them so they can leave you. Now they are sitting together at his desk while he’s writing. He’s a good role model, see. They’re singing ‘Why do birds suddenly appear’ to each other.

Now it’s time for some character development and Katie gets to meet a man who isn’t a jerk. This is demonstrated by the fact that he’s wearing a cardigan like her dad. It’s Jesse from Breaking Bad who is babbling because he’s nervous and so respectful and it’s actually quite cute. She must be going to fall in love with him. But before she can we need to learn that Russell’s seizures, which never went away after 7 months intensive therapy, are stopping him from signing books. Then he has to dance with his daughter and talk about he finding a prince one day. NOW she can fall in love with Jesse because the montage can include old Katie dancing with Jesse and we’ll all understand what that means. How thoughtful.

The evil uncle is still going on about adoption and I’m so angry about this. Russell is a good dad. Apparently adults can only affect me in this film via their stupidity and lack of justice. Just to reinforce that he’s a good dad, he peels away his daughter’s grumpiness at the dinner table and I nod approvingly. As someone who loved to sulk as a child, I feel qualified to judge this as good parenting. She even laughs.

At the half-way mark, I’ve decided I like both Russell and Jesse: they are good men. Jesse tells Katie that sooner or later a lion (see death) is coming for us all and there is no time for plan Bs. We have to live our plan As. I refrain from shouting my agreement into the ether of sleeping people on a plane. Russell is always making his daughter laugh. That’s nice. It’s in no way any less beautiful than a mother/child relationship. More good fathers on screen please! I’ve gotten over my gripe with the title: at least it’s sort of justified by the book name and while it’s a terrible name for a film, it’s wholly passable for a book. But my new biggest problem is that her mum died, his wife died, and we’re actually spending more time worrying about money than we are the long-term emotional impacts on Katie, which so far amount to her getting a lot of sex. He needs money for the school because no kid ever turned out okay if they didn’t attend private school. He needs money for the home because no kid ever turned out okay if they didn’t live in a huge NY apartment. His book has flopped. What’s he going to do?

And then it gets worse. The evil aunt and uncle are now suing for custody of Katie. All of the negotiation and hard talk is done by the uncle of course. The injustice of this angers me so much I have to rant about it to my friend, who can’t believe I am still watching this film instead of sleeping. But it’s terrible! He’s a good dad! My blood is actually boiling. And the sad thing is that we all know he’s got less chance of keeping her just because he’s a dad. So now he has to afford a lawyer and he has to get a second mortgage on his house and his seizures are getting worse and he’s just promised his daughter he won’t die, which of course means he will and I just need the film to finish because I can’t cope with how miserable it all is.

“He sits her down and actually talks to her about it all. Pretty novel.”

He starts being a bad dad because he’s trying so hard writing his new book Fathers and Daughters so that he can afford to prove he’s a good dad. Little Katie is bored, the house is a mess and he shouts at her about having to live in the ‘United States of Money’. We can forgive him, of course, because it’s the evil aunt and uncle’s fault. Plus he sits her down and actually talks to her about it all. Pretty novel. It’s a shame that all of the other things he does for her: making her laugh, being there to pick her up from school are all montage instead of in the spotlight. I guess that’s like life.

Back in the future, Jesse is literally chasing after Katie around NY because she’s trying to run away from the relationship. ‘Not everyone that loves you is going to leave you’ he tells her in a bath tub. It’s wildly romantic and wonderfully warming but completely lacking in any real exploration of her problems. That has been reserved for the money issues. Again perhaps this is more realistic. So then she goes and cheats on her perfect boyfriend – because she’s afraid of course- and condemns herself to staring at her face in the mirror not knowing what went wrong. Even though it’s textbook and the only way the audience is slightly in the dark is because we’re still not sure when Russell died. She recovers from her grief by putting on her tight tight body-con dress and going out. But she’s saved from what would no doubt be an earth shattering threesome by a jukebox which happens to play her and her dad’s song as she’s about to leave. Why do birds… It’s an emotional moment somewhat ruined by the director’s idea to make us care about her emotions with a long shot of her stooped over in the body con dress where we can’t see her face. Yes, the director was male.

She finally does some soul-searching and within two minutes she’s learnt her dad was trying in his book to teach her to keep moving forward and not to give up  (apparently she’s been unsure about this). So that wraps up all her daddy issues. Cooper: you have been ignored. How insulting. Then the adoption is swiftly wrapped up too: they can’t adopt her because turns out evil uncle has been cheating on evil aunt with his secretary and she’s pregnant. Does this really happen as often as films make out? Russell’s too exhausted to celebrate and I’m with him. All that anger about the injustice of it all and he only wins by default? How…anti-climatic. If you ever face such a similar situation: pray for adultery.

And so it all turns out that it wasn’t her dad’s presence that messed her up, it was his death. His absence. Thereby proving that a child can be fine if it loses one parent, regardless of it being the mother or the father, but to lose two: that’s just careless, as Wilde would say.

And I’m won over, in general, by the presentation of this father and daughter, until one final scene with the evil aunt, who actually raised Katie in the end and is probably more to blame for her loveless life than anyone. She says to Katie-the-old as a way of making amends and helping her to love ‘men can survive without love. But not us women.’ That line has less substance, and made me feel more sick than aeroplane food.

I concluded that the film was largely about attachment: how our attachments with our parents, our partners, the children we work with, can shape us and guide us and even limit us. How important it is to feel secure in love. And how easily it can be lost. Not bad for a film with such a bad title.

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Mothers and Daughters, however, was possibly even worse than Mother’s Day.  Although written by a woman, it was based on a concept by a man and directed by man. It was produced in film studios largely governed by man. Perhaps this is the reason it lacked any real depth or message. The old adage write about what you know has yet to make its way to Hollywood. It was yet another run-of-the-mill Love, Actually formula without the rich variety of characters and development: something every follow-up has greatly missed. The rich relationship between Katie and her Dad is in no way replicated via this diluted presentation of relationships between rich, white, beautiful women and their children.

“Is it too much to ask for a film that doesn’t deal with abortion like a Disney movie?”

The opening scene is a sexy-smoky-eyed photographer working at some muscle on stage. We’re repeatedly blessed with seeing her take photographs from various angles so that we have time to digest the wonderfulness of her life. God I want to be her, we should think. Later on, she gets pregnant. Oh no! Her perfect loft-life is ruined! ‘How long do I have?’ she asks and the film throws this in your face: look! We’re showing that not all women want children! She’ll have to get an abortion so she can go on tour. Oh no wait, we’re not that brave after all. She’s going to change her mind and keep it because it turns out she has a mother she never visits (I wasn’t clear on the link either) and miraculously not only does she end up happily with her baby, the doctor who helped her with it all has fallen in love with her! Happily. Ever. After.

Is it too much to ask for a film that doesn’t deal with abortion like a Disney movie? Everything does not always work out in the end. It was the same in How to Be Single. Apparently the world is full of men ready to swoop in and play the dad card with women they’ve never met.

The second scene in the movie is all about skin complexion and nothing to do with daughters. She’s selling bras and wants to look good on television. I got through all of Fathers and Daughters without once considering Russell’s wardrobe and how it reflects what kind of father he is. It’s only through this marked contrast that I realise 90% of this film is ‘IMAGE’. This woman’s storyline is that she put a kid up for adoption when she was younger and she eventually ends up meeting her. Again, I’ve already watched this storyline in Mother’s Day. Surely there are other mothers’ stories which could be being told? Or a different resolution than oh we’re going to be great friends!

One thing Hollywood does seem to have finally accepted is that women work. The women are working all over this film. It’s a workfest of gigantic proportions. Considering the boom for this happened over fifty years ago, I expect that maybe just before I die, I might see a set of films about women that actually reflects the parameters of our lives and emotions as they stand today.

The rich, spoilt girl whose mother is Susan Sarandon, and who I spend half of the film confusing with the adoption girl because they look so similar, tells her husband ‘you’ve just made me into the person that has to clean everything up’ thereby proving that she has no self-control or self-responsibility. Go feminism. Her character development seems to involve simply calling her mother who she hasn’t spoken to for 2 years to ask her for money. This wasn’t the worst though. Courtney Cox’s sister is actually her daughter (has the writer watched Eastenders?) and, given that we find this out at the start of the film, we don’t care, because we don’t know the characters. There’s a lot of drama but we don’t care. They reconcile and we don’t care. Is there are message in there about family being family regardless of labels? We don’t care.

Whereas Fathers and Daughters spoke to many via one, this film speaks to no-one via the glam-pack. There are some heart-warming, I love you mum scenes, but I don’t care about them because I can’t relate to these perfect women who are bemoaning: I don’t even know what. There’s a sort of stab at the idea that we want to impress our mothers I guess. There’s a lot of ‘my mother doesn’t understand me’. The only time men get a real look-in is in that spoilt girl’s relationship ‘you took a chance that I’d be the man you hoped for.’ Apparently ‘that’s what people in love do.’ Apparently in this world, to ‘be’ the man is to have the career that the woman expected. Photographer girl also declares that men also go downhill after 40 so they’re just as restricted as women to have children before 40. And that’s that. That’s the full extent to which the film dares to explore the inequality of women’s fertility time bomb.

And it’s all perfectly fine that women lose themselves to the name mum, because what you can do is name your daughter after your mum, and then she gets her name back! Genius! The perfect solution for the abandonment of self: reincarnate into your grandchild.

The most valuable thing I have learnt is that the number of text and Skype sessions in a film is directly proportionate to how terrible it is. At the end, it is dedicated to our mothers. It’s a weak, diluted dedication to what some mothers might be, only if they look perfect and have fantastic careers. It was a terrible film propped up with sentimental branding. Through my research, I’ve met mothers who’ve struggled to come to terms with getting old as their daughters grow more beautiful, who’ve suffered from empty nest syndrome and a loss of identity, who’ve battled with ‘I’m not good enough’, who’ve failed in keeping a marriage going with young children: all of these storylines are real and not reflected enough as it is on film. So why are we seeing the same women with the same hair styles and the same problems on repeat? I guess when watching a film about a father, there are fewer expectations because there are so few of them. It’s enough to actually see time being devoted to fathers and their children on screen. Motherhood has always been seen as women’s primary pastime. The challenge is to actually portray it with depth: portray the emotions actually being felt by women.

Film has always glamorized life. Perhaps with social media now doing the same, I just long for realism. Fair to say, Fathers and Daughters won hands down. And the only way I could recover from the ordeal of watching the loser was to enjoy clever Jane in Thor and sleep.

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