In art, as in life, mothers are often expected to be the primary caretakers — supportive, reliable, warm and sage.
In art, as in life, the bar is often set lower for dads. But this summer, a spate of movies featured sensitive single dads that displayed a brand of thoughtfulness often reserved for their female counterparts, guiding their daughters like competent caretakers.
Take John Corbett — of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame — who plays Dr. Covey in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Susan Johnson’s adaptation of Jenny Han’s young adult book. The story revolves around middle child Lara Jean (Lana Condor), a high school junior who fakes a relationship with jock Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) to hide her feelings for someone else. Lara Jean’s 12-year-old sister remarks early in the movie that she was still eating smushed peas when their mother died, which, by our calculations, means that Dr. Covey, a widowed gynecologist, has been raising three daughters on his own for a little more than a decade.
It shows. He is acutely aware of how much happier and more confident Lara Jean becomes as she “dates” Peter. When she struggles with her relationship, Dr. Covey takes her to the diner he used to frequent with her mother. “Seeing you come alive like that, you remind me of her,” he tells his daughter. “Just don’t hide that part of yourself, okay, honey?”
He also attempts to have an honest conversation with Lara Jean before she goes on a ski trip by asking, “Did you know most unwanted teenage pregnancies are the result of expecting abstinence?”
Of course, Lara Jean responds with an “Ew, Dad, what are you doing?!” expression. It’s much like the one that Kayla (Elsie Fisher) wears throughout “Eighth Grade,” a movie in which writer-director Bo Burnham skillfully captures how awkward, terrible and yet occasionally pleasant that age can be. Kayla struggles to navigate the emotional minefield that is junior high, and as a result, her dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), winds up the only constant presence in her life.
The second-best thing about Mark is that his scenes with Kayla relieve stress built up from watching her uneasily attend a popular girl’s birthday party or tag along with older kids to the mall. The first? His patience. He knows that the shy teenager needs to be left alone sometimes, so he tests the waters by playfully throwing a green bean at Kayla when she spends more time staring at her phone than eating dinner. He puts up with her occasional outbursts and lightens the mood with exceptionally earnest dad jokes.
And he lets Kayla experience things for herself, letting her know that he will be there for her whenever she needs him. Immediately after Kayla quietly admits that she would be “really sad” to one day be a mother to a daughter like herself, he delivers a short monologue so healing that it rivals the parental wisdom Michael Stuhlbarg shares with Timothée Chalamet in “Call Me By Your Name.”
But wait, there’s more. Brett Haley’s “Hearts Beat Loud” follows indie dad Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), a longtime widower and failing-record-store owner in Brooklyn who struggles to cope with the nearing departure of his UCLA-bound daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons). While Frank needs to grow up a bit more than his movie-dad peers — the loose plot involves him trying to persuade the talented Sam to forgo her pre-med future and start a band with him instead — his selfishness comes from a place of love, and he learns to get past it. His dream is ultimately for his daughter to fulfill hers.
The past few months also presented us with the single fathers played by John Cho in Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching” and Ben Foster in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” both of whom lean more “Mrs. Doubtfire”-style parenting overhaul than Dr. Covey-style persistent understanding, if only because they make heartbreaking discoveries in an effort to do right by their teenage daughters. David Kim (Cho) realizes he hasn’t done enough to comfort the troubled Margot (Michelle La) after her mother’s death, whereas Will (Foster), a veteran suffering from severe PTSD, recognizes that his life on the outskirts doesn’t provide his 13-year-old daughter with the regular human interaction she needs.
Despite their vastly different circumstances, these summer-movie dads recognize what our society as a whole has increasingly come to realize: that their responsibility as a caretaker is to consider the emotional health of their children and to be there to help boost it — not as a replacement for their mothers, but as a parent in their own right. It’s like what Mark tells Kayla in that pivotal scene: He is “just so unbelievably happy” that he gets to be her dad. We couldn’t agree more.