These damaged film dads unleash trauma on their children

A child grappling with paternal imperfection has always made for captivating drama – although such stories can vary greatly in narrative.

“It’s such a fundamentally human experience,” says playwright and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter (“The Whale”). “It’s universal but hyperspecific, which is what all good stories are.”

“It’s the most basic of human relationships, with the possible exception of the boy and his mother,” adds writer-director James Gray (“Armageddon Time”). “[Mom]is the first person you meet in life. And usually number 2 is dad.”

“The idea of ​​trauma being passed from parent to child is interesting for what you inherit, both positively and negatively,” says writer-director Charlotte Wells (“Aftersun”).

“One of the themes that I really wanted to explore is this cycle of pain and how to break it,” says playwright-writer-director Florian Zeller (“The Son”).

“At a certain point in childhood, we realize that our parents are only human,” concludes writer-director James Morosini (“I Love My Dad”). “I think we’re disappointed in that and for a moment we kind of hate them for it. A big part of growing up is realizing that they are only human and have flaws.”

This fall, these five filmmakers’ releases are all about failed fathers. The Envelope went on to speak to each of them to break down their approach to creating damaged dads.

A girl hugs her father in a scene from the film "After sun."

Frankie Corio stars in Aftersun with Paul Mescal.

“After Sun”

Father daughter: In an attempt to unravel the mystery of her loving but sad father, Calum (Paul Mescal), grown-up Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) pored over old photos and home videos from the last vacation she had with him as an 11-year-old herself (Frankie Corio).

The error: “Calum is better at being a father than at just about anything else in his life,” says Wells. “He’s set standards and ambitions that he might never be able to achieve, and I think that leads to a constant sense of disappointment.” Father then projects that onto his daughter. “He has intellectual expectations of her that are unreasonable for her age and assumes that she is more emotionally mature than she is.”

The catharsis: “I needed an excuse to dig into my own past,” continues Wells, who turned to old family Christmas albums for inspiration. “That’s why I started doing it [the film] first of all.”

A man and woman are seated at a kitchen table in a scene from "Armageddon period."

Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway play the parents in Armageddon Time.

(focus functions)

“Armageddon Period”

Father son: In 1980’s Queens, New York City, artistic young high schooler Paul (Banks Repeta) struggles to be truly understood and accepted by his short-tempered, working-class father, Irving (Jeremy Strong).

The error: “He’s incapable of raising kids,” Gray says of Irving Graff, which is based on Gray’s own father, who died of COVID while his son was in the process of editing the film. “I don’t blame myself [my dad]. I loved him to pieces. But he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to raise children. He’s never read a book about it, never seen a therapist. He had his rules, which he learned from his father, which might have been his father’s sins, and he passed them on to me.”

The catharsis: “I really don’t know because I’m kind of still in it,” Gray notes. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get any kind of catharsis from it. Maybe I shouldn’t… I think the idea of ​​catharsis in art is valid, but in our lives it’s a bit of a fiction.”

In the film, two men hold a karaoke microphone in a bar "i love my father"

Patton Oswalt and James Morosini in the movie I Love My Dad.

(magnolia pictures)

“I love my father”

Father son: In a story inspired by the filmmaker’s own life, estranged father Chuck (Patton Oswalt) does the worst for the best of reasons as he fishes his son Franklin (Morosini) to reconnect with him.

The error: Morosini thinks both Chuck and Franklin are dishonest. “Franklin is kind of dishonest with himself because he’s willing to go along with this even though somewhere in his head he knows something is wrong. In the end, he comes to the realization that his father isn’t a bad person, he’s just a flawed person who doesn’t have the tools to navigate a complex relationship,” he says. “Through their dishonesty, they almost discover something more honest.”

The catharsis: “Through this film, I was able to explore my father’s perspective in a way I never wished before,” says Morosini. “I’ve also tried to approach some of my own tough life issues with a sense of humor and lightness.”

A man and woman smile at their teenage son in a scene "The son."

Zen McGrath, Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman star in The Son.

(Rekha Garton / See-saw Films / Sony Pictures Classics)

“The son”

Father son: Divorced father Peter (Hugh Jackman) enjoys life with his new partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and their young son, but alongside ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) struggles to help his teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) to overcome a mental health crisis – while also trying to come to terms with his complicated connection to his own father (Anthony Hopkins).

The error: “He’s still obsessed with his past. He’s still obsessed with his pain,” Zeller says of Peter, adding that this inability to forgive his own father for his mistakes makes it impossible for him to deal successfully with the present. “He’s a tragic figure [because] he tries very hard not to be guilty, and so he ends up guilty.”

The catharsis: “Gabriel is my oldest of two sons,” says Zeller, who dedicated the film to his firstborn. “I wrote the play years ago – and made the film – as an act of love for him.”

A closeup of Brendan Fraser in a scene from "The whale."

Brendan Fraser stars in The Whale.


“The whale”

Father daughter: Self-isolated, morbidly obese and formerly withdrawn father Charlie (Brendan Fraser) strives to finally redeem himself by reconnecting with his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he left when he left his ex-wife Mary [Samantha Morton] for his new male partner eight years ago.

The error: Charlie’s main offense is leaving Ellie behind. “It’s complicated,” Hunter points out, “because he wanted to be a part of her life and Mary refused.”

The catharsis: “The feeling of desperately trying to save your child is so real to me right now in a way that was a bit more intellectual when I first wrote the play,” notes Hunter, who now has a 5-year-old daughter . “It’s such a gift that I got a second try at telling this story.” These damaged film dads unleash trauma on their children

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