The relationship between father and son has been the basis of storytelling as long as stories have been told. Shakespeare was rather fond of this particular riff himself, and so are the movies. I’ve always had a soft spot for these tales. In fact, the best screenplay I ever wrote, which won the BAFTA New Writers Forum in 2008, was a father/son story. It was also the most fun to write. The story of a father and son can be tragic, inspiring and often hilarious. It can take in redemption, discovery, reconciliation and ponder the age-old question of whether we are destined to become our parents.
Here are my favourite ten movies which explore these themes. Please, feel free to suggest your own. Or, indeed, any mother/daughter stories you feel resound with the same emotions. Enjoy!
It may be cheesy as hell, but there is something genuinely touching about Gregory Hoblit’s tale of a man who discovers he can talk to his dead father through a time-travelling ham radio signal. Jim Caviezel is the cop communicating with his fire-fighter father Dennis Quaid on the same radio, in the same house, 30 years apart, attempting to alter history in order to save his father’s life. Naturally, it all goes wrong before it all goes right, and despite the rather ordinary serial killer sub-plot, Frequency throws in some neat time-travel tricks as father and son work together across a generation.
Issues resolved: Dead father (twice), murdered mother, new appreciation for father’s hobby.
9. Finding Nemo
Hey, fish are dads too. After losing his wife and all his unborn kids, save one, over-protective Marlin is relentless in his search for Nemo, his only child. Pixar have a flawless way of portraying the complexities of human emotion through the use of toys, monsters or cute animals, and they don’t disappoint here. Marlin’s single-minded pursuit of Nemo, with no thought of ever quitting or assuming the worst is something that any parent could probably relate to. Just as Nemo’s exasperation with his over-bearing father is something that any child could equally relate to.
Issues resolved: Father learning to let go, son learning to appreciate his father’s love, mutual appreciation of those with crap memories.
8. Field of Dreams
Phil Alden Robinson’s adaptation of the novel Shoeless Joe is rooted in a father/son relationship, despite the fact that the two never interact until the closing minutes of the picture. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is an inexperienced farmer, living with his unresolved estrangement from his dead father. When he starts to hear voices telling him to remove his crop and build a baseball field, Ray begins a zig-zag journey towards reconciliation. Everyone thinks Ray is insane but, let’s face it, voices that say ‘build it and he will come’ are a lot better than those that say ‘kill them all’.
Issues resolved: Son’s resentment of his father, never playing ‘catch’, imminent bankruptcy due to the farm not actually having any farmland left.
7. Return of the Jedi
And you thought your dad was bad. Poor old Luke Skywalker has the kind of father issues that no amount of therapy will cure. Aside from finding out that his dad is not dead, as he was told, he also has to deal with the fact that the old man is an intergalactic despot, murderer and looks like a badly boiled egg with eyes. You have to wonder if you’ll turn out the same, right? Luckily for this galaxy, Skywalker Jr. has a heart the size of a death star and is able to turn his father back to the light. Not that this brings back the countless hundreds Skywalker Sr. force strangled on a whim.
Issues resolved: Father being a psychotic mass murderer, finding out the girl you lusted after is actually your sister, the embarrassing fact that dad looks way better in black than you.
6. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Keen to further the character of Indiana Jones for his third outing, Spielberg and Lucas pulled off one of the casting coups of the century by securing Sean Connery to play the archaeologist’s estranged father, Henry Jones Sr. The pairing is inspired. Bookish, uptight and pompous, Henry is the polar opposite of his adventurous offspring and their bickering is thoroughly entertaining. Well aware of the irony that we all end up like our parents, Ford integrated some of Connery’s mannerisms into his performance of the older Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Issues resolved: A remote and inattentive father and discovering you’ve both slept with the same woman.
Possibly the only father/son story where the father is played by a woman. Felicity Huffman is astounding as transsexual Bree, forced to bond with the son she didn’t realise she had as a prerequisite to being granted a sex-change operation. Toby, her son, has had a traumatic childhood and simply wants someone to connect to. Bree is reluctant to tell Toby the truth, instead telling him she is a Christian missionary. The developing relationship between them, though complex and difficult, is handled with such charm, honesty and wit that you cannot fail to be drawn in by them as they embark on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles. Magical.
Issues resolved: Father is almost a woman, son is a male prostitute, the list is extensive in this one.
4. The Godfather
Essentially a father and sons story, The Godfather is almost Shakespearian in its tale of a King and his three vastly different heirs. Central to the story, however, is the relationship between Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino). While Sonny and Fredo have followed their father into the ‘family business’, Michael shuns his father’s attentions and ambitions for him, determined to follow his own path. This, of course, makes him far more his father’s son than the others will ever be and Michael’s subsequent descent is both inevitable and tragic. Rinse and repeat with Godfather III.
Issues resolved: Resentment of father’s interference in son’s life, acceptance of inescapable destiny to inherit father’s crown.
3. Back to the Future
Marty McFly has never really looked up to his father, a weak-willed man who, by his own admission, is ‘not very good at confrontations’. Fortunately for Marty, his crazed friend Doc Brown inadvertently gives him the opportunity to build a better dad when Marty is sent back to 1955. Befriending the teenage McFly Sr., Marty sets about trying to teach his feeble patriarch how to truly win the heart of his mother. Further incentive is added by the fact that the other options are incest or ceasing to exist. Marty chooses the easy option and George McFly discovers that, sometimes, punching someone really hard in the face is the right thing to do.
Issues resolved: Lack of respect for ineffectual father figure and threat of being erased from history.
2. Road to Perdition
There are multiple father/son stories running through Road to Perdition. Irish gangster Michael Sullivan Sr. (Tom Hanks) is forced to flee with his eldest son after the rest of his family are murdered by Conner, the son of his boss, and surrogate father, John Rooney (Paul Newman). Aware that Michael Jr. looks up to him, Sullivan is aloof and reserved, fearing that the son will become the father. Their journey toward mutual acceptance is both warm and moving, but the relationship between Michael Sr. and John Rooney is heart-breaking, building to one of the most poetic and beautiful gunfights in modern cinema.
Issues resolved: Accepting your father for who he is and still loving him and protecting your son from all dangers, especially yourself.
1. Big Fish
Edward Bloom (Albert Finney/Ewan McGregor) is a great teller of tall tales, much to the frustration of his son, Will (Billy Crudup), who feels he’s never really known who his father is. When Edward discovers he is dying, Will comes to see him with his pregnant wife Joséphine (Marion Cotillard). Edward tells Joséphine the seemingly outrageous story of his life from his deathbed while Will tries desperately to reconcile with his father. With flawless performances from all, Tim Burton’s Big Fish has a big heart and the final scenes, as Will comes to understand and appreciate his father for the first, and last, time are incredibly moving.
Issues resolved: That sometimes the details of the journey don’t matter as much as the destination.