Since the late 1980s, when the animated Homer Simpson first colorfully defined dimwitted dads, most film or TV comedies cannot help but riff on such stereotypes. Absent or distant dads are also a mainstay of gritty biopics, with social stats revealing such depictions have a ring of truth.
Over the decades, the journeys of inspiring, strong fathers have also lit up the silver screen. For me, learning to be an engaged, wise dad isn’t some abstract theme for a review. After my wife and I had a second child this past January, I am seeking to be sharpened by good examples and glean lessons from dads, both real and fictional.
To that end, here are five movie dads whose grit, moral courage, and willingness to learn and grow have spoken volumes to me. The films they star in are listed alongside the streaming service where your family can watch.
In this hit biopic, Will Smith portrays Chris Gardner, an aspiring stockbroker whose wife abruptly leaves him. He endeavors to raise their preschool kid solo, dropping him off at daycare and working at an unpaid internship at a New York City brokerage firm. When they lose their apartment, Gardner and his son must race to get a spot at the homeless shelter or literally sleep on the streets.
Smith’s real-life son Jaden portrays his preschooler on-screen, who cracks knock-knock jokes with his winning smile despite their situation. If Gardner’s bond with his son can propel him to such extreme lengths to provide for his kid, then a season or two of stay-at-home work cannot deter me from that important role as a loving dad.
Let Relationships Disarm You // The Sound of Music // on Disney Plus
When we first meet Captain Georg Von Trapp, a military veteran, he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. His wife has died, and he seems helpless as Hitler’s Third Reich begins to take power in his beloved Austria. Enter Maria, the Catholic teacher who becomes governess for his seven children … and, gradually, much more.
As the musical has it (the film takes some liberties with real life), we see her love for the children and for music reawaken Von Trapp to what matters in life. “You brought music back into the house; I had forgotten,” says the great Christopher Plummer, recently deceased. The pace of life can easily make me task-oriented rather than enjoying the small moments with family, as this film reminds me through one man’s journey.
Live with Integrity // Blue Miracle // on Netflix
This new, fact-inspired Netflix film from Latino director Julio Quintana recounts the remarkable events of a large-scale fishing competition held near the Baja California peninsula, when an amateur team of orphans reeled in the largest fish. Orphanage director Omar (Jimmy Gonzales) is at the heart of the story, serving as a father figure to dozens of boys he and his wife have taken in from the streets.
Blue Miracle introduces Capt. Wade Malloy (Dennis Quaid), a fictionalized version of a real-life past tournament winner. Near the end, Wade visits Omar at night and proposes they cheat to win.
“When people get used to cheating, it seems like no big deal to them,” said Quaid in an interview. “But what it does to ourselves really is the worst damage.” Omar chooses integrity over the easy way, a lesson for his young charges.
Affirmation from Dad Matters // October Sky // on Peacock
In 1950s West Virginia, Homer Hickam Jr. (Jake Gyllenhaal) seems resigned to the hard work of coal mining like his father. After seeing the launch of the Sputnik satellite, Homer has a dream to escape Coalwood and do more in life. He and three friends scheme to build a rocket, stealing raw materials and exploding a few in the process.
His father, played by Chris Cooper, clearly loves his son but sees rocketry as a dead end. He is harsh and even abusive to his son and the “rocket boys” — hardly a role model, though the performance is nuanced where we can see how good intentions drive him. Throughout, Homer never yields from desiring his father’s approval and affirmation, and receives it in the end. The key lesson is about the power of a father’s voice.
Give Your Kid Space to Grow // Finding Nemo // on Disney Plus
Known for stories that play on the heart strings of even the most hardened viewers, Pixar’s quality family films are often more intended for parents than kids. Finding Nemo serves as a prime example, with its frightening opening sequence of a clownfish’s mother and most of her eggs being killed. Subsequently, dad Marlin is fearful about the fate of surviving son Nemo.
The Academy Award-winning film elevates the Pixar buddy-comedy formula. Beyond outrageous characters and unexpected environments, it’s the emotional through line that sticks with viewers. A father learns not to hold back his boy from doing what he’s capable of, which is surely a lesson that will come into play for me in the future.
Image: Adobe Stock
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.