I recently had an opportunity to screen the new Miramax movie, “The Boys Are Back,” which takes an honest look at the impact a father’s presence and absence has on his children.
Inspired by a true story, the film stars Clive Owen as Joe Warr, a newly widowed dad struggling to figure out what true fatherhood means. He left his first son, Harry, behind after divorcing Harry’s mother. And before his second wife’s death, though physically present, he is emotionally absent from the life of his younger son, Artie.
Having grown up without my father, I was struck by the authenticity of the film and its ability to genuinely capture the range of emotions children with absent or not fully engaged dads experience. Indeed, Harry and Artie are archetypes of an experience that has become far too common. In my case, they speak words I was unable or unwilling to say to my own dad. And, like me, Harry in particular had a “hole in his soul” in the shape of his dad that left a wound not easily healed.
Undoubtedly, some will casually dismiss this film as just another movie about bad dads or heroic single parents. Joe uses some unorthodox and permissive parenting techniques, so some may choose to focus on the “trees” of his risky methods. To do so would be to miss the “forest” of how fatherhood, for good or for ill, affects children, and all of us, in a profound and lasting way.
The broader reality is the film does not only speak to people like me, it also speaks for millions. There are 24 million American children — one in three overall and two of three in the black community — living in father-absent homes. Social scientists have produced a body of research conclusively showing that when children lack a good father, they are at a higher risk for a host of negative economic, health, emotional, educational and psychological outcomes.
President Obama — a fellow traveler on the journey as a fatherless boy and author of “Dreams From My Father” — has made the connection between the personal and the societal impact of father absence. One of first things he has done as president is to start a national conversation about fatherhood through a series of town-hall meetings. Incidentally, Mr. Owen, who not only stars in the film, but also was its executive producer, grew up without his father; I am not surprised by how involved he is in the film.
This timely film is not fiction — it reflects real life. National Fatherhood Initiative’s national survey of dads’ attitudes on fathering, “Pop’s Culture,” found that more than 9 in 10 fathers agree being a dad is a very important to them. Yet the survey also found that nearly half feel they lack fathering skills and a majority feel they can be replaced by moms or other men. Like Joe, their number one obstacle to good fathering is work responsibilities. Like Joe, whose late wife appears to him with parenting advice, fathers report that when they need support, they turn to their wives or the mother of their kids.
There are millions of Harrys in the United States, crying out for the universal need to be affirmed by one’s father. There are millions of Arties out there, whose fathers are “there,” but are not there. And there are millions of Joes who want to be good dads but are unable or unwilling to do what needs to be done for their children.
There is hope. I changed the course of my family’s history. I married the mother of my children and have committed to her and to our children for the long haul, working to be the fully present father and husband I did not see in my own childhood.
“The Boys are Back” reflects this same hope. As the film ends, Joe drives off into a sunrise with his sons safely buckled into their seats, and you get a sense that he and his sons are finally finding their way. No doubt, the journey will be a bumpy one. No doubt, boys will be boys. But, with a committed dad along for the ride, there is no doubt his sons will be better boys, better men and better fathers. This is my hope for every boy who is traveling the same road I traveled.
• Roland C. Warren is the married father of two sons and president of the National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood. org). He can be reached at email@example.com.
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