Father Knows, Well, Not Best

What George Clooney's portrayal of a struggling dad in The Descendants says about modern fatherhood

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Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight

Actors Shailene Woodley and George Clooney in The Descendants

I went to an amazing workshop at my 2-year-old daughter’s school last week about setting boundaries for our children. We talked a lot about respecting our children and acknowledging their feelings and we learned that if we can do those things, then we’re helping them become fuller human beings. Knowing that your parents care about how you feel and that your home is a safe place for your feelings is valuable to building self-esteem, more valuable than jumping to attention when authority says jump.

My wife and I try to employ those lessons. Many modern parents do. But this is a different vision of parenting than the one we were raised by. My parents were loving, devoted, affectionate, encouraging and, critically, happy being together, which separates them from so many parents of Gen Xers. But, typical of the times, my parents were autocrats. They joked with us about being dictators and were likely to order us to do as we were told. They quipped threats like, “I’ll give you somethin’ to cry about!” They spanked me more often than I can recall, a technique that was common then and is widely disdained now. Some people still believe that a good spanking will solve any parenting problem but nowadays all major psychologists agree that spanking is a poor choice because it damages children’s self-esteem and rejects their feelings and attempts to induce them to behave out of fear rather than understanding and teaches them that violence is the way to solve problems. Parenting today is not about being a commander in chief, but a diplomat.

(MORE: The Long-Term Effects of Spanking)

The challenge of how to be an effective parent in the midst of crisis is at the heart of The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney. Expect The Descendants to be nominated for Best Picture, Clooney for Best Actor and Payne for Best Director. But more importantly, expect The Descendants to make people think about parenting. Clooney’s Matt King stuggles to be a good father to his two daughters who need him more than ever because of a family tragedy. Early on King calls himself “the backup parent, the understudy,” and as a father it’s easy to feel like that. I’m a devoted parent but I could never outwork my wife in that area. She, like most moms, has a drive and a perceptive ability that is far beyond mine — she reads more about parenting, she compares notes with other moms, and she listens better and more deeply to the kids. I suspect this is a common situation. But what happens when a dad is forced to step up to the primary role? Matt King must do that even though he’s underskilled as a parent and unaware of the value of acknowledging and respecting the feelings of his 17- and 10-year old daughters. He tries to boss them around, for example, when they talk about his teenager’s anger he tells her to “get over it!” Then she explains the real reason why she’s angry and that immediately changes King and the movie.

As King struggles to deal with his daughters, his wife, and his in-laws, all of whom hurt him and suffer no retort, he looks like that modern humbled, soft man who’s far from macho, impenetrable or steely. He’s not the ruler of the roost that his father was. He’s aware of his frailty and his lack of power in the world and his emotions. This is kind of how I feel with my kids — where my Dad could come in and sort of pound his chest and demand obeisance, I don’t — can’t — do that with my son. It just doesn’t work and everyone around me is telling me there’s a better way. What it means to be a man today is different than what it meant in my father’s generation but we’re no less masculine because we accept a lack of control and are not pretending to be invincible. Alexander Payne is one of the filmmakers who’s great at portraying that modern man who’s smart and wimpy and unable to control his world—he’s given us Matthew Broderick in Election and Paul Giammati in Sideways and now Matt King with gray flecks in his dorky shaped hair. When he confronts his villain you know he’s not going to knock him out. King’s last name is an ironic joke because while he is a real estate raja, his world is crumbling around him and he’s powerless to stop it.

(MORE: 10 Questions For George Clooney)

In a way many of us are like King, in that we’re descendants of royal men who ruled unequivocally but are now forced to be humble and deal with a diminishing share of power in our world. And while Clooney is the best in the business at giving us old Hollywood suave, here he’s giving us that dazed, weary smile you have when you’re barely holding it all together and feeling squashed by the world. King doesn’t cry but you wouldn’t blame him if he did. I did. One tear toward the end. It snuck out of me. I thought, “What’s this wetness on my nose?” I wiped it then, “A tear? Damn, they got me.” But as a modern man I don’t mind crying at a movie once a decade.