As a Dad, Watching Movies for the First Time

I think it first hit me in Las Vegas. Seated in the Colosseum theater of Caesars Palace, watching the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s “Finding Dory” with the film exhibition community at the industry’s annual CinemaCon confab, my heart noticeably softened.

Director Andrew Stanton’s command of story and emotion was enough in and of itself to draw a reaction to the film’s preamble; any lower lip would quiver watching an adorably-voiced baby tang fish helplessly search for her lost parents. But I was two months away from being a father myself, so I could tell the energy emanating from that sequence had found a new crack in my armor.

Watching Garth Davis’ “Lion,” I felt the same inflated pang of sadness for a young Saroo Brierley (played by the effortlessly tender and emotive Sunny Pawar) as he canvassed an empty Indian rail station for his older brother. Creeping dread set in as a train carried him thousands of miles away from his family, soon giving way to a sense of relief when a loving Australian national took him in as her son (providing a different appreciation for Nicole Kidman’s performance). When the story reached its inevitable emotional conclusion — a boy, now a man, finally shedding the immeasurable guilt he had swallowed his entire life — I was a bit of a mess.

When a car accident left a young boy crying meekly for the loss of his mom and dad in the early moments of David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon,” I surprised myself at my sharp inhale. When a Boston police officer dutifully stood guard over the sheet-covered body of a murdered 8-year-old in Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day,” it triggered unexercised emotions. When a man lost his daughter to the grip of a dangerous ideology beyond his control in Ewan McGregor’s “American Pastoral,” I felt a different sort of anxiety for the first time.

It suddenly occurred to me that I had been watching the films of 2016 through an entirely different prism. I was watching them — reacting to them, engaging with them — as a parent.

Certainly movies dedicated to exploring this specific thematic tissue left their mark. I had already been affected by Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life,” when a filmed adaptation of the material (Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival”) screened at the Telluride Film Festival in September. The unfolding journey of a woman coming to know, in her very DNA, the profundity of being a mother was electric, both on the page and the big screen.

The melancholy of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” and the guilt-ridden head space of a father, inhabited brilliantly by Casey Affleck, settled deep with me. The fireworks and fury of Denzel Washington’s portrayal of an all-too-human father in his own filmed version of August Wilson’s “Fences” sent lightning bolts through my soul. Exasperated and with conflicting empathy, I screamed internally at a grief-stricken woman for abducting a mother’s infant in Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between the Oceans.”

I took tickled note of dos and don’ts in Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” and Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women.” I felt outsized protection for the protagonist of Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” as well as sincere adoration for his fleeting father figure. And my blood curdled at elements of Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” such that it may well have affected my capacity to enjoy the film.

Many times over this year I engaged with cinema in these new, complex ways. I laughed and I cried as a father, not as a pundit or a critic or even just a film fan. I was a different person when the lights went down each and every time this year.

It’s moving to discover you’ll wrangle with art differently for the rest of your life. So I thought I’d share.

Happy Holidays to you and yours.

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