Why struggling dads are dominating awards season

Why struggling dads are dominating awards season
From Charlotte Wells' 'Aftersun' to Florian Zeller's 'The Son', a new wave of films are using fatherhood to bring men's mental health into focus.

In Florian Zeller’s The Son, Hugh Jackman plays a clean-shaven, high-flying lawyer, living in a chic New York apartment and providing financially for his wife (Vanessa Kirby) and newborn baby. He’s on the brink of his next big career step – except his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) has just knocked on his door with news that their son has been skipping school. As Peter and Kate grapple with their teenage son’s depression, Peter’s pristine life begins to unravel.

For Zeller, the process behind this feature felt vastly different to his 2018 debut The Father, where he enters the mind of an 82-year-old man with dementia. By contrast, The Son tells a linear story from the point of view of a father who is struggling to understand his son’s depression and can only perceive events as they unfold. Speaking to Huck, Zeller says: “I wanted us to be on the sidelines, unable to take a step into [the son’s] brain, which refuses to give any answers; a mystery we are incapable of solving.”

The only divergence to this forward-marching narrative is a flashback to a family holiday, pre-divorce. In the distance, Kate sunbathes on the deck of a boat while Peter teaches his six-year-old how to swim. The moment encapsulates the issues at stake in the film: Peter believes he can help the teenage Nicholas (Zen McGrath) to overcome barriers in the same way he once taught his flailing son to stay afloat. However, he fails to confront how his son has changed in that lapse of time, still preserving an idealised memory of Nicholas which glosses over the issues he faces as a burgeoning adult. The relationship Peter instigates with Nicholas is chummy and emotionally superficial, in keeping with Peter’s otherwise immaculate life. Though, ironically, when it comes to understanding mental health, Peter is the one out of his depth.

“The experience I wanted to describe with this film was the guilt that parents feel when they don’t know how to help the person they love so much, because they find themselves in new territory where everything feels counterintuitive,” says Zeller. “I wanted to call out our own guilt, shame and ignorance around mental health.”

Hugh Jackman and Zen McGrath in ‘The Son’ (2022). Image: Sony Pictures.

The Son is released amidst a much wider conversation around men’s mental health, from a boom in campaigners aiming to destigmatise the issue to a greater awareness of male suicide (men accounted for three-quarters of suicides in England and Wales in 2021). There has also been a cultural shift around male sensitivity on-screen, with films like Another Round, Moonlight and God’s Own Country challenging traditional notions of masculinity, while The Washington Post conclude that “men are crying on TV as never before.” More recently, The Son is one of several Academy Award-nominated films bringing men’s mental health into focus through the lens of fatherhood.

In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, Brendan Fraser plays Charlie – a reclusive teacher with a binge-eating disorder triggered by tragedy. When he realises he has days left to live, Charlie decides to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink). This similarly claustrophobic, monochrome film mostly takes place within Charlie’s two-bedroom apartment, but briefly escapes its confines during a flashback of a sunlit holiday when the family unit was still intact – a biting contrast to how relationships between father, mother and daughter have frayed in the present. The role has made Fraser a best actor contender at this year’s Oscars, with an acting comeback dubbed the “Brenaissance.” It’s well-deserved: Fraser deftly balances the almost blind positivity with which this literature professor views other people with an inability to view himself with the same sunniness. 

Grappling with stereotypes of masculinity  and body image, Charlie’s poor mental health leads him to nearly forgo fatherhood entirely. When his daughter asks him why he didn’t try to contact her before, he says, with harrowing honesty: “Who would want me to be a part of their life?” This is despite the fact that Charlie is the only person able to see the best in his daughter. Her mother (Samantha Morton) proclaims her “evil” and has given up on her, arguably making Charlie the better-equipped parent. And yet, with Ellie (Sink) constantly commenting on his weight and even mocking him through posting images to Facebook, The Whale is testament to the ways in which toxic expectations surrounding fatherhood stand firm. 

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, “accidental fatherhood” films – as Deconstructing Dads co-editor Dr Laura Tropp brands them – took off, with storylines centring fathers, often adoptive, who are suddenly and unexpectedly left in charge. This comedy trope spawned Three Men and a Baby (the biggest box-office hit of 1987), Léon (1994) and Kramer Vs Kramer (2007), which was nominated for five Academy Awards. “Fatherhood is what turns them into a true adult,” Tropp tells Huck. “It is assumed in some respects that you can’t be a true adult until you have served in this role.”

As second-wave feminism began to impact cinema trends, the late 80s to late 90s also saw the rise of films in which men were able to express sensitivity – but still in traditionally masculine ways. A possessive family patriarch demonstrates his love for his daughter in the saccharine comedy Father of the Bride (1991), and in Liam Neeson thriller Taken (2008) a father uses “a very particular set of skills” to rescue his daughter. This current wave of fatherhood films allows for more nuance, often deliberately challenging ways audiences have been taught to view men on-screen. 

“Hugh Jackman is often associated with the idea of a hero,” says Zeller of casting the role of Peter. “Even if here it is a hero in the figure of a father falling apart, the father meant to find all the solutions.”

Through a veneer of stability is expected of fathers, fault-lines often show – take Aftersun, Charlotte Wells’ indie debut largely based on her memories of her own father, which has landed Paul Mescal one of 2022’s unprecedented Oscar nominations. Recounting a poignant father-daughter holiday in Turkey, Mescal plays a young father called Calum who, while struggling privately with anxiety and depression, is also under pressure to provide for the 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) emotionally and financially. Calum’s strains quickly become apparent, subtly expressed through the language of the film (at one point we see him perched on the railing of their hotel room balcony like a tightrope). However, whether seeing him unsteadily clutching a cigarette or vanishing into crashing waves, they’re always just out of frame.

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in ‘Aftersun’ (2022). Image: Sarah Makharine.

Aftersun shows a desire to carve out more knotty, nuanced roles for men, where what makes a “good” father isn’t easily defined. As Sophie attempts to reconcile her image of an unwaveringly protective dad with the reality of his inner turmoil, she finds that both versions of Calum can at once be true, making room for a more three dimensional view of masculinity – even if it is applied in retrospect.

Generational rifts are key to The Son. Anthony Hopkins plays Peter’s father, who unashamedly recalls abandoning his child and terminally ill wife in pursuit of an affair. When Peter confronts him, he is told to “get over it” – a stark contrast to 17-year-old Nicholas, who is weighed down by his mental health and in need of a lifeline. “Stuck between both generations is Hugh Jackman,” says Zeller. “He is a father, but also a son. We feel that he is still a hurt son. Even though he is better equipped to understand and deal with this than his father with his ‘get over it’ mentality, he still lives with the social pressure that he must be a certain kind of father or man.”

One thing the current portraits of paternity do suffer from is a lack of diversity – The Whale, for example, has been roundly criticised for fatphobia, while roles for BME actors are scarce. “The best and most interesting depictions of [fatherhood and male mental health] are not necessarily the films in the mainstream consciousness or that get Oscar nominations,” Alex Heeney, editor of the Seventh Row film podcast, tells Huck. She claims that films that authentically tussle with male mental health often go under the radar, such as Joachim Trier’s 2015 feature Louder Than Bombs. However, the interest among these award contenders in confronting mental health and fatherhood head-on does indicate that mainstream cinema may follow suit.

“The popularity of some of these films is driven by the fact that you’re starting to see children and fathers wrestle again with the role of fatherhood.” says Tropp. “Where does their father appear in this spectrum of fatherhood figures when it’s is becoming more complex, and fathers are filling all these different kinds of roles?” In the wider societal context of social media proliferating idealised images of fatherhood that show even less of the real stresses of parenting, Tropp adds that these films are grappling with the question of “what makes a good father in modern times.”

The Son takes an unflinching approach, which Zeller says comes from a sense of “responsibility” toward those struggling with mental health. This, along with The Whale and Aftersun, departs from filmic traditions where fathers, despite their obstacles, always triumph. “I felt that this was what this film could do: force us to think about this topic,” Zeller concludes. “Because even though a lot of awareness is being raised around mental health, I still believe we aren’t fully comfortable with the concept of mental illness.” 

These films broaden the scope for how both fatherhood and masculinity are portrayed onscreen, hopefully paving the way for more flawed, diverse – and therefore truthful – portrayals of fatherhood to follow suit.

Follow Miriam on Twitter. 

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