And how they helped me become a better parent.
As a child growing up in the eighties, I wasn’t like the other boys. And not just because I was the first in my neighborhood to rock a Z Cavaricci pant. It wasn’t just my way-ahead-of-its-time fashion sense. It was deeper than that. See, back in those days, it was extremely rare to see males showing emotion. Boys were taught at an early age that crying was unacceptable and expressing your feelings made you weak. Only girls were allowed to be vulnerable. Real men were supposed to act tough, suck it up and move on. That didn’t bode especially well for me because I was one of those boys, who, like CC Bloom in Beaches, “feels things deeply.”
I didn’t understand why boys and girls had to follow a different set of rules when it came to expressing themselves. It’s like we’re all born the same loving creatures, but somewhere along the way, boys are pulled aside and taught different traits to better align with society’s concept of what it means to be a man. And let me tell you, being told I had to change who I was in order to fit into these misogynistic standards left me sad, lonely and confused (kinda like Donald Trump during the recent debates).
I spent those early impressionable years being emotionally available in a world where all other boys seemed to be emotionally stunted. I yearned for connections. I sought affirmation from others. I needed another male to tell me it’s okay to feel what I was feeling. I looked for justification, but instead I found isolation. So there I be, this sensitive little boy totally in touch with his feelings feeling like a total outsider (imagine Billy Elliot with better hair). I had zero exposure to other emotive boys like me. They weren’t in my neighborhood, not at school, not at home, and certainly not on TV.
But that would all change in 1986 when my family subscribed to cable.
While the big three networks saturated primetime with hyper masculine fare like The A Team, The Dukes of Hazard and Designing Women, premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime offered me an alternative — movies that showed boys and men as three-dimensional characters with real emotions and vulnerabilities. It was exactly what I’d been missing, and what I so desperately longed to see. If I’m being honest, those early days of cable were hit and miss; finding real quality movies were few and far between. Back then, your likely choices were Summer Rental and Grease 2. And as much I loved seeing Maxwell Caulfield in leather, I needed more. And every once in a while I’d catch a hidden gem. No, I’m not referring to those badly-dubbed late night Skinemax features. I’m talking about character-driven relationship stories I could relate to. Stories that would stay with me forever.
So while violent video games were desensitizing my friends of their basic human emotions, I’d instead cuddle up on my Dad’s easy chair, with a cozy blanket and a box of Kleenex to enjoy some male bonding at its best… and maybe even shed a few tears.
As I think back to the movies I grew up on, I realized the ones that stood out most to me were about fathers and sons. The truth is, these movies played a big role in helping to shape the man I’d grow up to be, and in some ways, helped prepare me for fatherhood. If these lessons had such a visceral effect on me, I figure they may do the same for you.
So without further ado, here are the top ten films that taught me it’s okay for a man to express himself. Hopefully they’ll resonate with you as well.
10. Field of Dreams
I thought I’d throw you a curve ball and start with a supernatural baseball movie. Curveball, get it? Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, taught me that if you believe strongly enough, you can repair your troubled life. The final scene where Ray resolves his issues with his father by playing catch with his father’s ghost sounds corny — but in all fairness, they were standing in a corn field. This is a story about regret. It’s never too late to repair a strained relationship. It’s about redemption, connection and respect. Themes we can all relate to. Surprised I didn’t include the catchphrase? Go ahead; you know you want to.
9. My Life
In this underrated film, Michael Keaton plays Bob, a high level PR exec who discovers that he has terminal cancer just as his wife gets pregnant. Knowing he won’t be around to raise his little boy, he makes home movies of himself that his son can watch as he grows up. I know. It sounds like the most heart-wrenching, melodramatic ninety minutes since Whitney’s final Oprah appearance. But thanks to a terrifically nuanced script and subtle, restrained performances, it’s an unforgettable classic. When I first watched this, back in the early nineties, I remembered thinking to myself how badly I wanted to grow up and become a father too. And now that I am a father, this is the movie that inspires me to treasure every special moment with my son as he grows up too fast. And to take none of those moments for granted. Why are you still reading this? Go hug your kid!
8. Big Fish
In this touching tale Billy Crudup plays Will, an alienated son and Albert Finney as his estranged father. When Will finds out his dad is dying, he returns home to begin a journey that will lead him to learn who is father really is. This transpires as Will rediscovers the tall tales his father once told him as a child… a process that eventually allows him to come to terms with his father’s mortality. Director Tim Burton strikes the right chord by wrapping his trademark fantastical elements around a traditional father/son narrative. At its core it’s about a father’s inability to communicate with his son. To me, Big Fish is a metaphor for life. You can be a little fish in a big pond, a big fish in a little pond or — like in this story — you can be a little fish that grows within the pond to conquer your goals.
Okay, truth be told, prior to my son being born, I had never watched an animated film all the way through. Just wasn’t my thing. But that means I now get to experience them for the first time through the eyes of my son Maxwell. And The Lion King is our absolute favorite. James Earl Jones is the voice of Mufasa, the title character. Early in the story he teaches his son, Simba, about bravery and the need to accept guidance from others. But the most profound lesson he imparts is for Simba to always “remember who you are” (a lesson we all need to be reminded of). Shortly thereafter, Mufasa is tragically killed and Simba must summon up all the lessons his father lovingly taught him so he can claim his rightful throne and save his kingdom. This father-son story tackles the corruption that exists in the world, but succeeds at showing how good moral judgement can overcome such corruption. And you thought your life was dramatic.
I remember watching this riveting film and feeling as though I had the wind knocked out of me. Laurence Fishburne masterfully plays Jason “Furious” Styles, a tough-loving father doing his best to raise his rebellious son, Tre, on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. In a neighborhood where male role models are scarce, Jason teaches his son (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) that “Any fool with a dick can make a baby — but only a real man can raise his children.” Can I get an Amen! This is a story about a father teaching his teenaged son how to rise above a life of drugs, gangs and violence. As a young, suburban white kid, I was horrified to learn how sadly true to life this narrative was. The big lesson for me: no matter how bad you think your problems are, other people are going through things far worse. It helped me put things into perspective.
Technically, this isn’t a father/son movie. But it’s close enough. Most remembered for the complex relationship between math-genius Will (played by Matt Damon) and his lonely therapist exquisitely played by Robin Williams. But it was the relationship between Will and his best friend, Chucky, played by Ben Affleck, that had the most impact on me. There’s a scene where Chucky tries to convince Will to leave town so he can make something of his life, “You don’t owe it to yourself. You owe it to me. You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket… it would be an insult to us if you’re still here in twenty years.” Two blue collar man’s men speaking honestly about how they feel. It was something, up until that point, I’d never seen. And something I’ve never forgotten. Young men being vulnerable with each other. How you like them apples? More than you know.
4. Finding Nemo
The second animated film to make the list is once again about a father and son, this time an overly-protective clownfish (Marlin) and his only son, Nemo. Having lost the rest of their family, these two only have each other. So it’s easy to understand why Marlin’s neurosis goes into overdrive when Nemo goes missing. Marlin dedicates himself to bravely finding his lone son, facing all of his fears along the way. As a father who’s been known to coddle his son, I completely understand Marlin’s desire to keep his only son safe from harm. But this film reminds me that I have to put my parental anxiety aside in order to let Max experience new things and lead his own life. In fact, I might just man up and remove the GPS chip I’ve had installed inside Max’s sneakers. Perhaps my favorite thing about Finding Nemo — dad is the hero of the story, which is super rare for animated films
You probably never heard of this movie. Don’t worry. I’ve watched it enough for the both of us. In this predictable, melodramatic masterpiece, Kevin Kline plays George, who uses his terminal cancer as a springboard from which to reconnect with his estranged teenaged son, played by a pre-Jedi Knight Hayden Christensen. Together, they attempt to build a house, something that helps — you guessed it — repair their broken relationship. I know it sounds awfully sappy and cliché, but you had no problem being obsessed with Steel Magnolias, so just go with me here. This movie taught me that hard work and tough love can go a very long way. If you haven’t seen this film, check it out. You’ll walk away with a lot more than an empty box of tissues. And by that I mean a crush on Hayden.
The central theme of Ordinary People echoes that of this very article — a family’s inability to show their emotions and express genuine affection for one another. Timothy Hutton gives a soul-searing performance as Conrad, a teenager trying to recover from a mental breakdown signaled by a suicide attempt. His therapist (soulfully played by Judd Hirsch) helps the boy come to terms with his own guilt over having survived a boating accident that resulted in the death of his older brother. Donald Sutherland plays the boys emotionally repressed father and Mary Tyler Moore as the icy matriarch. It’s a marvelously touching film that teaches you the dangers of pretending things are okay when they’re not. There has never been a more authentic and intimate look at a family in the throes of dysfunction (well, aside from Being Bobby Brown).
Congrats on making it to my #1 pick! What can I say about my all-time favorite movie? When all the other kids were watching ET and The Goonies, I was watching this well-worn VHS tape on repeat every single weekend. In many ways, this film — portraying a dissolution of the family unit — mirrored my life at that time as it explored a workaholic Dad (Dustin Hoffman) who’s suddenly thrown into the deep end of fathering his young boy after his wife leaves without warning. The father son transformation from selfish to selfless is a beautiful journey to watch. The big lesson here — fathers are just as capable at raising children as mothers, as long as we have our priorities straight. Dustin’s character learned this and I’ve learned it too.
(bonus) Other People
Unlike the films already discussed, this one is brand spanking new. In fact, you can currently catch it On Demand. It’s so remarkable I feel a personal responsibility to bring it to more people’s attention. With whip-smart writing and quietly graceful performances, you will be completely transported into this family’s every wish, thought and fear. The story centers around David, a gay, 30ish struggling comedy writer (Jesse Plemons), just out of a relationship, who leaves New York and heads home to Sacramento to care for his Cancer-stricken mother (Molly Shannon). Sounds like a hoot, huh? Despite the subject matter’s dark tone, there’s so much heart and subtle — sometimes absurd — humor that perfectly balances out the heavier scenes. There’s also a slow burning conflict between David and his closed-minded father who refuses to acknowledge his son’s sexuality. The film taught me that sometimes when things are so bad, all you can do is laugh at the funny moments that are so inherent to tragedy.
So what did all these movies teach me about fatherhood?
They taught me that it’s okay to be vulnerable. No more perpetuating the harmful rules that society puts on men. I’m going to teach my son Max about empathy and let him know that his emotions are real and they matter and he should never be afraid to show them. I know that being in touch with his feelings will help him navigate life traumas and will better equip him for the pressures he’s bound to face in adulthood.
And if all else fails, I’ll just make him watch these movies.
To help find your path to fatherhood through gay adoption, surrogacy or foster care check out the GWK Academy.