You’d think modern-day societies would have moved past the old-fashioned narrative about fathers by now, especially with the heteronormative idea of family increasingly and rightfully shifting, challenging long-standing gender stereotypes. But many still view dads as absent, bread-winning authority figures who leave a child’s day-to-day needs and emotional growth to women. With her feature debut “Dads” (which was nabbed for distribution by Apple at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival), Bryce Dallas Howard sets out to topple various preconceived notions about paternity and portray the changing face of fatherhood. It’s mostly a vanilla documentary with no real destination, but one with plenty of cuteness to go around.
The unremarkable nature of Howard’s film is based on the fact that its well-meaning plea — both parents ought to be equally involved in a child’s upbringing — is hardly groundbreaking. Thankfully, the actor-turned-filmmaker knows this. Avoiding a self-congratulatory tone accordingly, she eases into a lovely fête of fathers everywhere in 87 economic, often very funny minutes. In “Dads,” there are no graphs or pie charts about how old-fashioned practices hinder today’s families, or the significant others made to shoulder the burden of nonstop-needy kids all by themselves. Howard favors observation over lecture, anecdotes over numbers, showing instead of telling what equally split primary-caregiving looks like in contemporary households.
As one would expect, the director’s famous father, former “Happy Days” star Ron Howard, is very much involved here, both as a producer and an on-camera subject (reportedly a hesitant one at first, warming up to the idea later on), along with his own late father and son Reed Howard, who goes from a prospective to an actual dad during the film. An impressive lineup of famous comedians, hosts and actors — Jimmy Fallon, Ken Jeong, Hasan Minhaj, Neil Patrick Harris, Will Smith, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Kenan Thompson and Patton Oswalt — is also in the mix. Forming a Greek Chorus of sorts against backdrops of bright, assorted colors, the group helps shape the framework of the movie while sharing memories and opinions about what fatherhood means to them. Smith advises admitting to your kid when you don’t know the answer. Kimmel recalls the time when his kid threw up in his mouth — “projectile vomiting,” he calls it, generating a hearty laugh. Minhaj thinks of a father as a compass, while Conan O’Brien openly admits to his regrets about not being around his kids more.
While it is easy to talk about ideal parenting as a celebrity with resources to support one’s vision, socioeconomic class isn’t a blind spot in “Dads.” Being both the daughter of a Hollywood figure and a celebrity herself who grew up in a supportive environment with access to countless opportunities, Howard has the good sense to reach beyond her comfort zone, to middle-class families from around the world. She still pulls off something personal that partly honors her lineage — after all, this is a film that starts with a heartwarming home video of its director’s birth. But she also goes to lengths in assembling a group of fathers (some of them, vloggers) diverse in their race and sexual orientation, and portrays a range of families, from U.S., to Brazil and Japan.
Unsurprisingly, these “real people” segments are the film’s most relatable. Some even have the quality of funny, off-the-cuff YouTube videos, one share away from going viral. In chaotic kitchens across the globe, we watch fathers as they make breakfast for their young ones or adorably rap about chores and proper behavior. In living rooms, we witness frenzied playtime. “Wipe my butt,” demands an adorable, authoritative American kid from his dad (most fathers seem to agree: fatherhood involves way too much poop), while a kid in Tokyo gets his computer smashed by an exasperated dad (drawing big applause at the Toronto screening).
Among the most sentimental stories featured in “Dads” is that of a same-sex American couple with four adopted children and memories of steadily becoming a family. Along with her cinematographer Andrew Lascaris, Howard captures the warmth of the happy clan vividly as they play around in their garden, unknowingly challenging the dated conception of masculinity. Every now and then, especially with the mention of Promundo — a Brazilian-based NGO focusing on promoting a caring and non-violent idea of manhood — the filmmaker approaches a real call-to-action about ways we can demand parity for hardworking fathers, with longer and widely available paternity leaves, for starters. But she doesn’t quite drive the message home, as her “Dads” is less about such ambitions, and more about a genial celebration with a loving hug and big smile.