Father/Daughter Movies: The Good, the Bad, and the Treacly

The two best movies I’ve seen recently are True Grit and Winter’s Bone, both of which heavily feature the father/daughter relationship, which seems to have a special place in Hollywood’s money-churning machine. While mother/daughter relationships tend to fall along a binary–either the women are Gilmore Girls close or they’re Mermaids-style dysfunctional–daddy-daughter movies are permitted a wider range of emotion, from heart-warming to straight-up sappy to disturbing to weird to just plain difficult to define.

Fatherhood in Absentia

True Grit and Winter’s Bone, despite being set in the Wild West and contemporary Appalachia, respectively, share surprisingly similar plots. Both involve an adolescent girl whose family, including younger siblings and a less-than-capable mother, are relying on her to find either her father or his killer.

By focusing on the daughter’s relationship with her father once he’s already gone, film-makers can hint at what was there and what was lost. Because True Grit‘s  Maddie Ross relationship had an overwhelmingly positive relationship with her dad–she recounts a fond memory of him taking her “coon hunting,” essentially treating her like his son in a time when sons and daughters were valued very differently–she feels personally invested in bringing his killer to justice.

Ree Dolly from Winter’s Bone has a decidedly more multi-faceted relationship with her dad. In comparison to her mother, who is extremely distant and whose mental health has apparently suffered for years, her dad is the family provider. Sure, he cooks crystal meth and puts their house up as his bail bond, then apparently skips town, but Ree has faith that only something sinister would have compelled him to leave his family.

Treacly But Awesome Single Fathers

My Girl – This was my favorite movie when I was little. It was just morbid enough (little Vada Sultenfuss lives in a mortuary with her widower dad, is worried about developing prostate cancer, and thinks she killed her dead mother) and sweet enough (man, was Macauley Culkin ever an elementary-school dreamboat).  By the end, Vada’s dad finally figures out how to cope with his little girl’s burgeoning adolescence and also how to comfort her while she grieves (both over her mother and the entirely unnecessary death of Culkin–that really pisses me off, even a decade later).

Mrs. Doubtfire – How committed do you have to be to your kids in order to cross-dress as their nanny? I should probably be offended by how cross-dressing is played for laughs (it’s not nearly as well-done as Tootsie, I’ll give you that), but I still can’t help loving this movie and the transformation of Robin Williams from an immature funny guy to a tuned-in dad. I also appreciate that he doesn’t get back to together with Sally Field (love her), because then, instead of a realistic portrayal of a workable divorce, it would just be a less-good, gag-filled version of The Parent Trap.

Out of Touch Dads

Dan in Real Life – Before I say anything else, the creaky New England house in this movie made me swoon. But on to Steve Carrell’s parentally-challenged widower: he doesn’t trust his oldest daughter to drive, then gets multiple tickets from an increasingly hostile police officer himself. He tells his middle daughter that she can’t possibly have fallen in love in three days, then he meets and falls in love with a woman in exactly three days. Oh, and when he sees middle daughter kissing her boyfriend in a cafe, he bangs on the glass, chases boyfriend away, and prompts middle daughter to scream, “You’re a murderer of love!!” Like most hapless dads, he gets a clue by movie’s end.

American Beauty – Probably the truest example of a dad who just doesn’t get it, Lester Burnham initially hates himself and is derided by his wife and only daughter (teenaged Thora Birch, who is as amazing here as in Ghost World). Unfortunately, even though the film shows him developing as a person at an intensely fast and fulfilling rate, he’s killed before he really has a chance to share his newfound self-respect and love of life with his daughter, who was planning to run away the very night that he is murdered.

Complicated/Not-What-They-Seem Dads

Pretty in Pink – Who could forget the moment when Jack Walsh gives daughter Andie a pink prom dress, only to be forced to admit he can’t really afford it and has been faking holding down a job? Andie certainly comes across as the more mature half of this duo, while her dad is mired in bitterness and regret.

Say Anything – This is one of my all-time favorite daddy/daughter movies. It doesn’t mess around when it comes to representing fatherly protectiveness (which can extend to mothers, but in this case, the mother in question is too distant to be of any influence), or the emotions of betrayal that typically surround children learning their parents aren’t perfect. Of course, Jim Court’s criminal fraud is decidedly more upsetting than finding out daddy likes to go to the casino sometimes, and I appreciate that Ione Skye isn’t immediately ok with what he’s done.

Stupid-Entertaining Dads

Father of the Bride – To be quite frank, there’s no love lost between me, this movie, and Steve Martin. I just don’t get him, and Shopgirl made me quite frankly not want to get him. But  I do think this is a somewhat-charming film about the much-mythologized “letting go,” which for whatever reason is always portrayed as more difficult for father than mothers, especially when daughters are involved. Steve Martin is perfect as the zany dad you just want to lock in a padded room.

What Women Want – This is one of those terrible movies that is re-run on cable so often that, after awhile, you develop a strange affinity for it. Sure, watching Mel Gibson trying to shave his legs makes me want to scratch my eyes out, and the fact that his teenage daughter wants to have sex gets kind of demonized, but we all have to assume Gibson’s heart is in the right place, as he ultimately wins over the daughter and learns some valuable lessons about exploiting women.

So what are your favorite father/daughter combinations? I also wanted to include Paper Moon and something about how terrible Jersey Girl is, but my list was already getting over-long. Suggestions that are on Netflix Instant are doubly welcome!


2 thoughts on “Father/Daughter Movies: The Good, the Bad, and the Treacly”

  1. Fathers who are equals with their daughters:
    * “Lady Eve Sidwich”/ Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her grifter partner, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn). Check out the card game scene. The Colonel wants to take his mark, “Poncey” (Henry Fonda), but Jean won’t let him.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lady_Eve
    and
    * Eugene (Joseph Cotten) and Lucy (Anne Baxter) Morgan in “The Magnificent Andersons”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinatown_(film)

    I like out of touch fathers, so I will nominate:
    * Lon Sr. (Leon Ames) and the rest of the Smith girls. He finds Tootie’s missing roller skate. Don’t serve him supper early! “Meet Me in St. Louis”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meet_Me_In_St._Louis
    and
    * Former chef Chu (Si hung Lung) and his three adult daughters in “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eat_Drink_Man_Woman

    Most twisted father (guilty pleasure):
    * Noah Cross (John Huston) and Evelyn Cross Mulray (Faye Dunaway) in “Chinatown”. Uh, do I also count Katherine?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinatown_(film)
    and
    *Dr. Sloper and his heiress daughter, Catherine. Both versions, “The Heiress” and “Washington Square” are good for the father-daughter dynamic. What a horrid parent.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Heiress
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Square_(film)

    “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a given right?

    I’m gonna nominate the original father of the bride, Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. When Taylor married Nicky Hilton her wedding was timed to promote FoTB film. Her real wedding gown closely resembled her movie gown.

    Of course I’d nominate “Paper Moon” for Dad substitute figures. BTW the film was originally intended for MyManPaul Newman and his daughter Nell Potts.

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