For a lot of onscreen wives, mothers and children in 2018, a good man was hard to find.
The year’s most critically beloved film, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, revolves around a Mexican household abandoned by a husband and father who runs off with his mistress. “No matter what they say, we women are always alone,” the mother tells her maid, who has also been viciously spurned by the father of her unborn child. That line speaks to a lot of the cinema of 2018.
The recent news about the American Psychological Association’s controversial new guidelines declaring “traditional masculinity” — here implicated in aggressiveness, violence, eschewing appearance of weakness and anti-femininity — to be generally harmful follows a year of movies cross-examining men and masculinity, especially abusive, ineffective or absent husbands and fathers.
“What happened to ‘Cowboy up,’ ‘Grit your teeth,’ ‘Be a man’?” the young male hero of my favorite film of 2018 demands of his father, a hard-drinking gambler. “What happened to all that, Dad?” The film explores the pressure on the young man, both internally and externally, to be tough and to compete despite a potentially life-threatening injury.
Viola Davis learns the hard way in Steve McQueen’s Widows that she was, um, less happily married to Liam Neeson than early scenes would suggest. The young hero of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One lives with an aunt and her abusive boyfriend. Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong becomes increasingly emotionally unavailable to his wife and kids in Damien Chazelle’s First Man.
Remarkably, each of Disney’s four live-action family films — A Wrinkle in Time, Christopher Robin, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and Mary Poppins Returns — feature dads who aren’t bad guys but who nevertheless have trouble being there for their families, either emotionally or physically or both.
Perhaps the year’s most complex onscreen parental relationship was that of Debra Granik’s extraordinary father-daughter drama Leave No Trace, starring Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. It’s a tender relationship and a profound bond, but deeper forces in the psyches of the wounded father and the levelheaded daughter are pushing them in different directions.
The cross-examination of masculinity extended to nonfiction films. Bing Liu’s acclaimed debut documentary Minding the Gap explores the intergenerational fallout of paternal physical abuse and the difficulties some young men have transitioning to adulthood and parental responsibility. Free Solo profiles celebrity rock climber Alex Honnold, whose girlfriend struggles with Alex’s emotional remoteness.
While some might be inclined to blame all of this on anti-masculine attitudes among liberal filmmakers, that would be at least an oversimplification.
Cuarón’s Roma is inspired from the director’s memories of his own childhood in Mexico City, where his father abandoned the family when Cuarón was 12. Armstrong’s sons were consulted on Gosling’s portrayal of their father and vouched for its truthfulness. (It’s not included in the film, but the Armstrongs eventually divorced.) The documentaries, of course, depict real lives of real people.
There were gratifying exceptions.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.