It used to be that in movies about teenagers, dads often came across as more absentee or overbearing than empathetic. Sure, every now and then we’d come across a father capable of providing his children with adequate emotional support, but we met a lot more like Harry Dean Stanton’s downtrodden dad in “Pretty in Pink” or Larry Miller’s overprotective dad in “10 Things I Hate About You” than dads like Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
That changed this summer. From “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” to “Eighth Grade,” movie dads displayed a brand of thoughtfulness often reserved for their female counterparts. They guided their daughters like the competent caretakers they are, avoiding the bumbling Mr. Mom portrayals of movies past.
We begin with Dr. Covey, a teary-eyed man played by John Corbett in “To All the Boys,” an adaptation of Jenny Han’s young adult book. A widower, he has been raising three daughters on his own for a little more than a decade. The story centers on the middle child, Lara Jean (Lana Condor), a high school junior who fakes a relationship with jock Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) in order to hide her feelings for someone else.
Dr. Covey is acutely aware of how much happier and more confident she becomes as she “dates” Peter. He recognizes his limitations and, when Lara Jean struggles with her relationship, takes her to the diner he used to frequent with her mother to honor the place she holds in Lara Jean’s heart: “Seeing you come alive like that, you remind me of her,” he tells his daughter. “Just don’t hide that part of yourself, OK, honey?”
Lara Jean responds with an “Ew, dad, what are you doing?” expression, of course.
It’s much like the one that Kayla (Elsie Fisher) wears throughout “Eighth Grade,” a movie that 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.
And he lets Kayla experience things for herself, letting her know that he will be there for her whenever she needs him. “Some parents have to love their kids in spite of who their kids are,” he says as audience members shed many tears. “Not me. I get to love you because of who you are.”
But wait, there’s more. “Hearts Beat Loud” follows Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), a longtime widower and failing record store owner 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, 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, similar to what the dad in “The Kissing Booth” (Stephen Jennings, whom we don’t really see much) tells his daughter, Elle (Joey King), when he disapproves of her rebellious boyfriend but trusts her enough to make her own choices.
The past few months also presented us with the fathers played by John Cho in “Searching” and Ben Foster in “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.
Despite their vastly different circumstances, all five 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.